The Philippine government has started regulating cruise ship visits to Boracay Island in a bid to ease the pressure of tourist numbers on its environment.

Cruise ships are barred during peak tourist seasons, and those with a capacity of more than 2,000 passengers have been prohibited from making port calls on the island to curb overtourism. Alternative destinations are being offered instead.

Closeout periods will be this spring from April 24 to May 31; All Saints/All Souls Day holiday break from October 26 to November 8; during the Southeast Asian Games from November 23 to December 19; and during Christmas and New Year’s from December 20 to January 5, according to Arturo P. Boncato Jr., Philippine Department of Tourism’s (DoT) undersecretary for coordination and resource generation.

Cruise ships were also earlier banned from Boracay during Chinese New Year this year from January 29 to February 12, and the recent Holy Week from April 16 to 23.

Boracay was closed for six months from April 26 last year to make way for the government’s rehabilitation effort. Tourist arrivals on the island dropped 53 percent to 930,363 last year from two million in 2017, as per DoT’s data.

Alternative destinations

In a separate interview, DoT’s regional director for Western Visayas, Helen J. Catalbas, said cruise ships may go to alternative destinations during the closeout periods. These include Iloilo and Bacolod in the region, Subic, Bataan, Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur in Northern Luzon, and Bohol (Tagbilaran Port) in Central Visayas.

The Western Visayas region is where Boracay, a municipality of the province of Aklan, is located.

She added the rule to prohibit cruise ships with over 2,000 passengers to call on Boracay was effective from April 16.

“The new policy guidelines are aligned with the Boracay Inter-Agency Task Force efforts to regulate port calls [in] adherence to the carrying capacity of the island. DoT believes that residents and visitors could enjoy Boracay Island for the longest time through the cooperation of everyone in promoting sustainable tourism,” said Catalbas.

A study commissioned last year by the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources indicated that Boracay’s ecosystem can only support 19,125 tourists at any given time.

The regulations have not deterred Dream Cruises, a unit of Hong Kong-based Genting Cruise Lines, from selling trips that include the Philippines.

Cruise Lines Adjust

In an interview via email, Thatcher Brown, president of Dream Cruises, said: “We are aware of the latest advisory from the Philippines regarding the capacity limitations for cruise ships entering Boracay. For Dream Cruises, World Dream has a capacity of 3,400 passengers [lower berth], which exceeds this limit.”

He noted that the Philippine government issued a similar advisory last December, prohibiting cruise ships to Boracay, “and since then, Dream Cruises has revised World Dream’s Boracay itineraries in the first quarter of 2019 to other alternative destinations including Subic Bay and Japanese ports of call. World Dream is the only ship with planned itineraries to the Philippines in our fleet.”

Brown said Dream Cruises will continue to communicate with the relevant authorities for the most updated information regarding the cruise ship guidelines and make necessary changes if required.

“We support the government’s initiative to rehabilitate Boracay’s environment so that everyone can enjoy the beauty of Boracay in the future,” he said.

According to the company’s website, its sister cruise ship Genting Dream will also be sailing to Puerto Princesa in Palawan as part of its cruise departing Singapore on June 9. It’s offering a 20-night cruise around Australia and Asia, departing Sydney on March 1, 2020, which includes port calls in Coron Island in Palawan and the Philippines’ capital city, Manila.

Data from Caticlan Jetty Port shows four cruise ships making port calls on Boracay on separate occasions this year: Windstar Cruises’ Star Legend on February 27 with 246 passengers; Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Navigator on March 4 with 384 passengers; Hapag-Llyod’s Europa on March 22 with 300 passengers; and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines’ Voyager of the Seas on April 10 with 2,853 passengers, and on April 15, with 3,334 passengers, a day before the maximum 2,000 passengers limit was enforced.

Caticlan is considered the gateway to Boracay, only 15 minutes away by ordinary pump boats.

Islanders Continue to Protest

Local stakeholders and residents continue to oppose cruise ship calls at Boracay.

Boracay Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Elena Brugger said: “We continue to be against cruise ships. We don’t want [them] due to environmental issues.”

She added, “There are no proper ports and no proper facilities for these cruise ships. They just create traffic at the port every time they are here.”

Cruise ships visiting Boracay usually drop anchor at the Caticlan jetty port.

“The government should definitely clamp down on cruise ships, especially to tiny, fragile islands such as Boracay,” said writer and publicist Freida Dario-Santiago, who moved to Boracay from Manila in 2003. “We are not a city! I don’t know about the actual numbers and the carrying capacity of the island when these cruise ships arrive, but one thing’s for sure, traffic congestion along the roads and beaches is shoulder-to-shoulder, garbage is overflowing, public transportation is hijacked to cater to the sheer volume of visitors, and yet local businesses don’t benefit from all this chaos, and we are left to clean up after their mess.”

She added, “Then there’s the issue of the environmental impact of these ships — air pollution, carbon emissions, water, oil pollution, and the risk of oil spills — I doubt we have the facilities to counter such a catastrophe. Do we know where and how they dislodge their wastes? Cruises may be dumping fuel and human waste into the ocean, for all we know, and the larger cruise ships are essentially floating cities, and many of them produce as much pollution as one [city].”

But Megan Barber King, senior vice president for global strategic communications and research for the Cruise Lines International Association in Washington, D.C., asserted that cruise ships do benefit a destination’s economy. She told Skift in an email, “While we have no specific figures for Boracay, cruising generated $126 billion in economic output in 2017, supporting thousands of local businesses and suppliers.”

“Cruising,” she added, “has taken a leadership role in working with destinations to develop solutions that enhance sustainability. In many places, including the Pacific region, our cruise lines have worked with local people to develop offerings for cruise passengers that benefit the local economy and protect resources and heritage.”

She underscored that cruise lines are also able to help destinations in tourism planning “due to its predictability.”

“Cruise lines are able to predict months in advance how many passengers will arrive, how long they will stay, and when they will leave,” she pointed out.

Photo Credit: Boracay regulates cruising. Maria Stella F. Arnaldo / Skift