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"A cesspool" Philippine island Boracay closes to tourists

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Thursday, April 26, 2018, 2:12 PM - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte approved a tourist ban in the country's most famous island, Boracay, for six months from April 26.

For more than six months the Philippines [will close] its most famous tourism island to tourists, paving the way for a major cleanup of Boracay, which firebrand president Rodrigo Duterte has branded a "cesspool."

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Boracay in better times. FILE PHOTO: Tourists take pictures on the island of Koh Tao September 19, 2014. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom/File Photo

A favorite among local and international tourists for its sugar-white sand and crystal-clear ocean, Boracay has been deteriorating as a result of what President Duterte has called an "overzealous" development on the beach front, and inadequate sewage facilities.

In one of his trademark public outbursts, he said the island's waters smelled of feces - although he used more colorful language.

An official from the tourism ministry said this could just be the start of the work:

"It will take longer than six months to rehabilitate and sustain and save Boracay, but this is a good start because the major works that have to be done, have to be done unhampered without the presence of too many people in the island."

FILE PHOTO: Tourists walk amongst trash washed up on Kuta beach by seasonal winds, as workers attempt a clean-up in the background, on the Indonesian island of Bali February 15, 2016 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. REUTERS/Wira Suryantala/Antara Foto

The island is located off the northern tip of Panay, it attracted nearly two million visitors last year and generated over a billion dollars in revenue.

Cebu Pacific are anticipating a loss of up to five million U.S. dollars, as domestic airlines begin to refund customers.

Shares in Discovery World, which operates a resort on the island, dropped over seven percent at the announcement.

The government says any knock to the economy will be temporary, and that it has $38 million put aside for locals who depend on visitors.

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Beaches buckle under tourism strain

The six-month closure of the Philippine tourism island of Boracay for a revamp after the country's president branded it a "cesspool" reflects the growing pressures on beach resorts across Southeast Asia as visitor numbers surge.

Tourism experts say the region's infrastructure is buckling under record visitor numbers, especially as more Chinese holiday abroad, and expect more drastic measures to come.

Airports have become chaotic, hotels are being thrown up hastily with little regard for safety and sanitation, tropical beaches are strewn with garbage and coral reefs are dying.

Thailand already has plans to shut its famous Maya Bay in the Phi Phi islands for four months this summer, while an environmental group is calling for urgent government action to tackle a "crisis" on the Indonesian tourist island of Bali.

"Many out-of-control destinations across Asia will need clean-ups," said Brian King, associate dean of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. "These may come from government, or industry or from NGO-driven community action. The danger is that little happens until the crisis point is reached."

He added: "Boracay is not the first and won't be the last closure."

Airlines have already started to cut back flights to Boracay, which had 2 million visitors last year, with the largest foreign contingents coming from China and South Korea, ahead of its closure on April 26.

The Philippines, which had record visitor numbers last year after three years of double-digit growth, estimates the Boracay closure could reduce full-year GDP by 0.1 percent.

Image: Reuters

It is also planning to inspect the beach resort of Puerto Galera, on the island of Mindoro, and is already looking at the resorts of El Nido and Coron, in Palawan province, where an influx of tourism and rapid development has put infrastructure under strain.

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Shutdowns "too late"

Benjamin Cassim, a tourism lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic School of Business in Singapore, said the closures of Boracay and Maya Beach could become "test cases" and will be closely monitored by other countries with popular beach resorts.

A non-profit group in Indonesia has been calling on the government to tackle what it calls an "environmental crisis" in Bali, the country's most popular tourist island, which saw more than 5.5 million visitors last year.

Indonesian authorities have long faced criticism for allowing unplanned developments that have swallowed up rice fields with golf courses and villas on Bali. Its beaches are regularly strewn with plastic washed up from the ocean during certain months of the year.

Nonetheless, President Joko Widodo has been trying to promote creation of 10 "new Balis" in other parts of the scenic Indonesian archipelago.

"Environmental conditions in Bali are now increasingly degraded," said I Made Juli Untung Pratama of WALHI, the Indonesian Forum for Environment.

"The culprit is the construction of massive tourism accommodation, without a proper regard to Bali's environment. The massive development of tourism accommodation has caused the environmental crisis in Bali."

Shutdowns such as the one on Boracay are not a new phenomenon. Back in 2004, Malaysian authorities shut all hotels on the island of Sipadan, known for having some of the best scuba diving in the world, to help protect its eco-system and subsequently restricted tourist numbers to the island.

But some say these extreme actions often come too late, and a more sustainable solution is needed across the region.

"Proactive environmental protection is a far more effective approach than reactive environmental protection," said Matt Gebbie, an analyst from Horwath HTL Indonesia, a tourism consultancy.

"You can't revive coral reefs and eroded beaches and degraded forests in six months," Gebbie said. "Proactive protection is essential for the long term sustainability of resort destinations."

(Reporting by China Global Television Network (CGTN). Reporting by John Geddie and Dewey Sim in SINGAPORE; Neil Jerome Morales and Martin Petty in MANILA; Amy Sawitta Lefevre in BANGKOK; and Cindy Silviana and Tabita Diela in JAKARTA; editing by Philip McClellan)

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