Boracay’s closure hits workers hard

After closure, thousands employed by tourism sector are scrambling to find other jobs

BORACAY: Jessler Magbanua, 17, has been sculpting elaborate sand castles for tourist tips on the Philippine resort island of Boracay for years, but now that it is shut for cleanup, he will have to switch to mixing cement.

The six-month closure of Boracay to holidaymakers, which started yesterday, is forcing thousands of workers employed by the bustling tourist trade to adapt in order to survive.

Jessler, a so-called "castle boy", said he would look for construction work in the absence of the lucrative business of creating sand art for photo snapping holidaymakers.

"I will just be doing (manual) labour. I will mix cement," Jessler told AFP about how he would adapt. "There is no other work to be had here."

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered Boracay closed for a clean-up after calling it a "cesspool", saying local business owners were dumping sewage into the island's once pristine waters.

Boracay has been a top Philippine destination, morphing from a backpacker paradise in the 1980s into an increasingly developed beach resort, fuelled by a quadrupling of visitors in just a decade.

The island saw some two million visitors last year, pumping roughly US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) of revenue into the Philippine economy.

The boom also made Boracay a magnet for Filipinos seeking well-paying jobs.

The closure will impact the livelihood of 17,000 hotel, restaurant and other tourism workers, plus about 11,000 construction workers.

Jessler said he used to earn 1,000 Philippine pesos daily (S$25), more than double the local minimum wage.

"I really want to have lots of tourists on Boracay," he said near one of his creations that spells out the island's name.

Life on the island comes at a high cost as prices are inflated for the tourist market.

Mr Faustino Cruz said he would return to becoming a coconut farmer in his province south-east of Manila after working his way up as a resort chef.

"It is backbreaking work on the farm and the income is only every three months. It is half what I make here, but we just have to bear it because I have young children to support," he told AFP.

Hotel masseuse Dory Gaitano told her family that sacrifices must be made.


She asked her oldest child to stop going to university in the meantime.

"My children were frowning. They were against it. I said, 'What can I do? Boracay is closed.'"

Mr Duterte earlier said he would release two billion Philippine pesos to help the workers, but many said they have not seen a penny yet.

The impact is hardest on informal workers such as Ms Iflin Bayato, who braids tourists' hair for a living.

"Who will I cater to? The police have short hair," she told AFP.

In some cases, entire businesses are moving. Mr Milky Maming on Wednesday moved his 160-strong workforce to a branch in central Cebu island as he would have no more customers for his water sports business.

Jessler said he would stay on the island along with his buddies, who would also do construction work.

"All of us have the same plan. Maybe we can just build the sandcastles on the road," he said with a laugh. - AFP