The Philippines wants cruise dollars. But Boracay, which has reopened after some rehabilitation, does not. The island is a key cruise stop but can carry only so much. Tourism authorities and cruise lines should work out the sums.
The Philippine government is considering reducing the number of port calls by international cruise ships on Boracay Island, a major tourism destination in the country, in a bid to protect its environment.
Pending the finalization of the guidelines, Philippine authorities at the start of the year have begun prohibiting cruise ships from sailing to Boracay Island, dubbed by many international travel publications as “one of the best islands in the world.”
Cruise ships, however, are allowed to drop anchor in other key Philippine destinations.
In an interview with Skift, Arturo P. Boncato Jr., undersecretary for tourism regulation coordination and resource generation for the Philippines Department of Tourism, said the agency is chairing a committee comprising other government agencies, to discuss new guidelines on the sailing of cruise ships to Boracay.
The committee had its first meeting on January 9 but no final decisions were made, he said.
“Discussions revolved on the type of ships [that will be allowed to make port calls], mitigation of pollutive practices, discipline on embarkation/disembarkation, circuit tours to manage loads per site, study on peak seasons, et cetera,” said Boncato.
The island had been closed for six months, between April 26 and October 26 of last year, to address environmental pollution and violations of the no-build zone on its main beachfront, famous for its fine, white powdery sand.
To continue protecting the island’s environment, Philippine authorities are limiting the number of tourists there to 19,125 at any given time, based on a scientific study that determined Boracay’s carrying capacity.
Artur Pankowski, assistant vice president and general manager of Royal Caribbean Cruises in Manila, said, “I can assure that our company is certainly bringing in our vessels and customers to the Philippines, and we will continue to work closely with local and central government in order to mutually satisfy our business objectives and cooperate in protection of the country’s natural treasures like Boracay.”
Skift reached out to other cruise lines but none responded at press time. According to Clean Cruising, 26 international cruise trips have Boracay in their Asian regional itineraries. Among them are ships belonging to Royal Caribbean, Windstar Cruises, Regent Seven Seas and Seabourn Cruises.
Backlash on cruise ships among locals
Stakeholders on Boracay, however, want the government to completely prohibit the visit of cruise ships, which they feel do not benefit the residents in terms of the economy, and will cause more pollution in its waters.
Nenette Aguirre-Graf, president of the pioneering stakeholders group, Boracay Foundation, said in a survey of its members just this month, “It was an overwhelming ‘No’ to cruise ships [84 percent of members].” The group has over 150 members, including resorts, banks, island organizations, residents and expatriates.
She said Philippine authorities did not “properly consult with stakeholders, even with the local officials; there is no direct or enough economic benefit to the unit and stakeholders; and the arrival of the ships cause traffic and transport [crunch] when they are in Boracay.”
“Our school children, residents, and movement of our regular paying tourists who come to enjoy the island with their hard-earned holiday savings, suffer too.”
Cruise ships normally dock at the Caticlan port on the mainland of Malay, the gateway to Boracay, then passengers are ferried by floating rafts to Boracay’s jetty port. From there, tricycles make a rush for the new arrivals, causing massive traffic jams and fewer transport vehicles for the rest of the island residents, workers and guests. Cruise passengers number anywhere from 200 to 4,000 when a ship descends on the island, depending its size.
Further, Aguirre-Graf said cruise ships don’t just bring water pollution and sewerage waste, “they just enjoy the beach, and don’t even book island tours or dine in our restaurants.”
Boracay is the second top tourist destination in the Philippines after Cebu, accounting for 1.05 million foreign tourists of the total 6.6 million who traveled to the Philippines in 2017.
Of the $1.1 billion in tourism receipts earned by the island that same year, foreign visitors spent some $743 million.
The six-month closure of the island last year saw only 942,533 tourists, of whom 60 percent were foreigners. No data on the island’s tourism receipts last year have been made available by the Department of Tourism.
Impact on Philippines’ positioning as Asia’s major cruise stop
All the negative views of cruise ships coming out of Boracay must be causing some uneasiness among tourism authorities which have been positioning the Philippines as a major cruise destination in Asia.
In an interview, Benito C. Bengzon Jr, undersecretary for tourism development planning for the Philippines Department of Tourism, emphasized that a turnaround cruise ship carrying 2,000 passengers will be able to generate $1.2 million in tourism receipts for the Philippines.
“What we want is for cruise passengers from long-haul destinations to fly into Manila [the Philippine capital], board the ship here, sail in Southeast Asian waters, and fly out in another destination,” he said.
Tourism authorities meanwhile have drawn up a cruise tourism strategy, and forged alliances with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Under its national tourism roadmap for 2016-2022, the department of tourism targets an increase in cruise port calls on the country from 72 ships with 72,350 passengers in 2016, to 402 with 456,164 passengers in 2022.
The agency is also looking to China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, the U,S,, the UK, Germany, and Australia as the markets for cruise passengers. To this end, the Philippines was able to persuade Star Cruises to homeport in Manila beginning in 2017.
Photo credit: Genting Cruises' MS World Dream drops anchor off Boracay last December 16. Local stakeholders believe the island derives no economic benefit from cruise ships. Photo courtesy of Christine San Diego.