Standing on Boracay’s White Beach in the early 1970s you’d have experienced the same fine white sand and views out to sea as you do today. What’s so different now is the vibrant world that inhabits the space behind the beach.
For centuries Boracay was virtually a secret. A hidden gem set into the Western Visayas only visited by the occasional adventurous explorer. As with the majority of The Philippines, Boracay was hard to get to. There were no regular planes, buses or even boats.
That has all changed now. Here, I’ll take you on a journey through Boracay’s history. Starting with its humble beginnings, all the way to the popular travel destination that it is today.
1521 – 1960, Before Tourism
Photo by Dieter Schrottmann
When the Spanish arrived in the Philippines under Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, Boracay was inhabited by about 100 people who farmed rice, fished and raised goats. These original indigenous residents are known locally as the Ati tribe.
Through the 1940s and 50s, the people of Boracay (Boracaynons) relied mainly on fishing and coconut farming for their livelihoods. They also traded with businesses in the neighboring island of Panay.
During this time, overfishing using cyanide seriously damaged the nearby reefs, and the cost of farming had become too high. So, in the 1960s, Boracay switched industry and started trading puka shells instead, which were then still found in abundance on its aptly named Puka Beach.
The 70s, Boracay’s First Glimpse on the World Stage
In 1970, two movies featuring Boracay Island were released. Nam’s Angels, also known in the United States as “The Losers”, and “Too Late The Hero.” Now, suddenly, for the first time, Boracay’s beauty was displayed internationally for all to see.
A few years later in 1978, German writer Jens Peter described the island as “paradise on earth” in his book about the Philippines, further increasing awareness of the island.
Due to this sudden international attention, the island started to attract some tourism. Visitor counts were still very modest though. In fact, at this point, there were only two guesthouses on the entire island – Aguirre’s Beach House and White Beach Resthouse, which were 5 and 10 pesos a night respectively.
The 80s, Backpackers & Boat Stations
Photo by Jim Evans
From the early 80s onwards, the island saw a steady increase in tourism. At first, mostly backpackers looking for a budget getaway, away from the mainstream, came to the island. Cheap local nipa style accommodation and local food were the order of the day.
During most of the 80s, boat transport to and from Boracay was arranged by flagging down and chartering passing boats.
As arrivals increased steadily, it became necessary to control where people came and went through, as ferries dropping off guests just about anywhere was becoming an accident waiting to happen.
To remedy that, three boat stations were set up along the four-kilometer stretch of White Beach in 1988. They became the designated drop-off and pick-up points for guests coming and going.
Today, these stations aren’t used as boat stations anymore, but their names are still used to refer to the different neighborhoods along White Beach.
The 90s, Mainstream Resorts Arrive
Photo by Shangri-La Boracay
Recognizing a great opportunity, investors from Philippine cities like Iloilo and Manila began building bigger and more luxurious Boracay hotels, with better facilities for the well-heeled. The first swimming pools and high-end restaurants sprung up.
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Seeing things could get messy without a master plan, a US-based consultant was hired to put together a long-term plan for the island’s future, and a task force was appointed to see it through.
In 1991, however, authority was handed over to the local government who seemingly misplaced the plan, or chose to ignore it, and an opportunistic free market took over.
Later in the 1990s, a number of international hotel chains came to the island, with Shangri-La resort & spa being the very first, which is pictured above.
By 1997, the original sewage system was struggling to cope with the sudden onslaught of tourists. So much so that an outbreak of bacteria saw tourism drop by more than half at the end of the 1990s. The addition of a far more robust water treatment system quickly remedied this.
2000 – 2017, Explosive Growth & Sustainability Problems
Throughout this period, Boracay regularly received travel awards, with the most prestigious one being “World’s Best Island,” awarded by Travel + Leisure in 2012.
As a result of this ongoing attention, tourism grew explosively, but the infrastructure to support this growth did not keep up. In 2015, serious sustainability issues started to crop up, such as stinky water seeping onto the streets in various local areas.
There had been sustainability issues previously, but at that point, they had become so prevalent that they couldn’t be ignored anymore.
Then, in 2017, 90 percent of Boracay’s roads were flooded during tropical storm Urduja. The drainage system just wasn’t designed to cope.
2018, Boracay Closed for Rehab & Re-Opened
Photo by Lhen Brutton
On April 4, 2018, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte announced Boracay would be closed for up to six months, starting on April 26.
The island was closed between April and October 2018 to allow the rehabilitation of the island to take place. The long-term process of upgrading started, which included upgrading drainage and electricity systems to building safer sidewalks and better quality road surfaces.
While this upheaval was traumatic for some residents, most people agree it was the right thing to do. The long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term upset, and in the end, everyone is set to enjoy a more sustainable and eco-friendly Boracay Island.
2019 and Beyond
Photo by Rhinna Palmer
While Boracay’s main rehabilitation effort during the closure has already past, further rehabilitation is still ongoing. It’s scheduled to be completed in December 2019, though that may get delayed. Speaking of which, due to slow progress, the Philippine government has been considering closing the island for one more month to speed up the progress, but no final decision has been made on this yet.
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In the end, though, a sustainable and eco-friendly Boracay will be an ongoing effort. When done well, it can serve as an example of how to turn a tourism destination gone bad around – an example that other Philippine travel destinations can follow.
This article was written by Callum and Paul from Boracay Compass. Most pictures were contributed by Boracay community members.
- Cover photo by Julia Lervik
- Interviews and reactions from longtime residents.
- Miguel de Loarca, Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas (Arevalo: June 1782).
- Movies that had filming locations in Boracay. Wikipedia.
- De Guzman, Nicai (June 6, 2017). “These Vintage Photos of Philippine Beaches Are a Trip Back in Time“.
- “Postcards from Boracay”. Philstar Global. 28 July 2018.
- “Boracay named World’s 2nd best beach”. ABS-CBN News. 24 January 2012.
- “Boracay to close for 6 months“. ABS-CBN News. April 5, 2018.
- “What Went Before: Boracay’s environmental issues“. Philippine Daily Inquirer. 13 February 2018.
- Clavecillas, Joyce (26 February 2018). “Paradise lost: Ati natives dread Boracay closure“. ABS-CBN News.