We finally made across the channel from ‘mainland’ Panay Island to the empty beaches on Boracay Island in the Philippines. Our primary goal was to extend our tourist visas before the deadline to avoid paying fines. Boracay has the nearest immigration office set up to handle that.
While there, we checked out the beautiful white sand beaches, which are normally packed with tourists, but now are empty thanks to the ‘Rona pandemic.
We have been looking at the famous White Beach from the balcony at our apartment rental in Motag, Malay, on the mainland, since March 16, when we got ‘stuck’ in a pandemic lockdown.
We showed our quarantine completion documents from the local government to the port officials. It proves we are “living” in Malay township. Our neighborhood, Motag, and Boracay Island, both are part of Malay. We had no problem boarding the ferry after that, since we are basically ‘residents’. It cost 40 pesos, the equivalent of 80 cents.
As soon as we left the ferry, we saw many trikes lined up for customers. Sadly, there weren’t many customers. Another sign of the pandemic times.
Unlike the ‘mainland’, many trikes are electric on Boracay, and have larger seating areas than the traditional trike. So all three of us – me, Tedly, and his mom Diane – were able to ride together to the immigration office at the center of the island.
Talk about luck! When we got to the immigration office, it was the first day an appointment was needed to take care of visa business. But, the office will still take up to 12 walk-ins per day. Luckily, they hadn’t had 12 walk-ins yet, so we had no problem taking care of business.
It cost roughly $1 a day to be here. Our visas had expired on May 12, but the government granted a grace period without penalty to renew visas due to the Covid-19 crisis.
We had 30 days from quarantine rules easing to get the job done. For our part of the Philippines, that meant June 30 was our deadline. Made it!
Now it was time to do a little island exploring.
COVID-19 on Boracay
First, a quite note on the pandemic here.
Malayan officials have protected Boracay during the pandemic. After all, it is the economic engine of this region. COVID-19 cases were extremely low, and there was no evidence of any community spread. It is only open to people who live in this region of the Philippines. Since we have been through an at-home quarantine, and we’ve not left the area, we are technically “living” here.
And then. A few weeks ago, a government worker from another part of Panay Island broke protocol. This person was under self-quarantine for COVID-19, and yet visited Boracay anyway for a ‘conference’ that really amounted to a party. Officials scrambled to contact trace; the violator and others were placed on strict quarantine; dozens of Bureau of Fire Management were fired. Now, everyone waits with bated breath to see if there will be any spread. So far, so good.
Newly released figures as of this writing show the recent incident seems to be keeping local tourists away. Boracay is open only for Visaya residents, or regional residents. If you live in New York, you aren’t going to jet in.
“From June 16, when the island reopened to tourists from the region, until June 22, only 48 tourists visited the island. The biggest single-day arrival was recorded on June 20 with 19 tourists, while the lowest was on June 17 with two, records from the Malay tourism office showed.Source: Inquirer.net
Empty beaches on Boracay
White Beach, stations 3 & 2
The most famous beach on the island is White Beach. The sand is like powdered sugar. The sea at the shoreline is turquoise. It’s simply breathtakingly beautiful. And with the stunning sunsets in this part of the world, it’s no wonder this is a romantic spot for marriage proposals and Instagram “influencers.”
It’s those ‘influencers’ and ‘travel bloggers’ who helped contribute to overtourism that nearly wrecked the whole thing. Boracay was shut down to visitors for nearly a year while buildings and businesses were subjected to environmental regulation and renovation. Then, the Christmas 2019 typhoon hit. We saw some damage still evident.
As if that’s not enough bad luck, enter the pandemic. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was set to make an appearance on Boracay just days before we arrived in Malay. His visit was supposed to mark the reopening of Boracay for tourism — but instead, his trip was canceled as he managed the virus crisis from Manila.
While White Beach is spectacular, so is the evidence of a region pummeled by economic hardships. Business after business was closed on the main commercial area of this famous place.
It certainly looked like a pandemic had hit, with closed shops and locals wearing masks.
We stopped for an iced coffee (yay!) and it was the first time the three of us had been at a restaurant together since back on Negros Oriental several months ago.
Most tourists never see beyond White Beach, or the few other famous beaches dotted around the island. But we aren’t most tourists.
Bulabog Beach through D’Mall
Next, we walked across the island at its narrowest part. We went through D’Mall de Boracay, an open-air mall of sorts with shops and restaurants – most of which were closed. Tedly thought maybe one in 10 businesses were open. I would guess fewer. Maybe one in 14.
Bulabog Beach was nearly nonexistent. It was high tide and so the water slapped the seawall. But true to its fame, this beach was windy, and we saw a windsurfer enjoy himself from the shoreline to the horizon.
Boracay overlook point
From here, it’s an uphill hike to the island’s overlook. I wasn’t in the mood to trek uphill at noon, and so Tedly hired an electric trike driver for take us around to a few spots for one hour. For the three of us, we paid 500 pesos, or $10. We are sure we are the only tourists who’ve paid Ricky – the driver – for an island ride in quite a while.
The actual platform for a panorama was closed. The sign did not explain why, or when it might reopen. I saw a fallen tree on the staircase leading up. My guess is typhoon damage – but it’s just a guess.
Still, we enjoyed a partial view from the side off the road.
Puka Shell Beach
Onward to Puka Shell Beach. Ricky parked down the road, and we hopped out to take a quick look. This is a another powdery white sand beach. It’s small compared to White Beach, and tucked in a cove with some small vendor businesses.
I would go back here for more exploring and relaxing. Hell, I’d go back to any of these beaches for more time to do nothing. All of the empty beaches on Boracay are beautiful. Eventually, we will return.
But the clock was ticking, and we simply wanted an island-overview on our first visit, so we headed back to the trike where Ricky waited for us.
Diniwid Beach & Station 1 White Beach
Our next stop was Diniwid Beach. Ricky dropped us off and left because our hour was up. We needed refreshment and so we ended up DiniBeach Bar and Restaurant. Beer for mom and Tedly, a pineapple-coconut crusher (smoothie) for me.
It was a cute place with a beach view, social distancing, hand sanitizer, and nice workers. The new normal. Our waitress GiGi took our photo.
The beach itself is small and calm, with some large rocks.
If you walk south, there is a sea path by the rocks that leads you back to the northern part of White Beach and Station 1. Great views from here.
Station 1 is the ritzy part of White Beach with higher-end accommodations. But now, there are empty beaches on Boracay.
It is sad to see so many people hurting because of this pandemic and resulting tourism shut down. I have previously written about travel and tourism in a post-pandemic world, and part of me hopes tourism picks back up soon so livelihoods can be restored.
But another part of me hopes the tourism will be tempered by more authentic travel, and responsible travel. I do not get political here often, and it’s not really my place to comment on how other countries run their business. But I will say I believe Duterte did the right thing by closing Boracay to tourism for a reassessment on how things were devolving, and to follow a plan to save Boracay as the Philippine treasure it clearly is.
Now that we have a visa extension until August, it’s back to work with the Ati on the mainland — an indigenous tribe negatively impacted by the pandemic just like everyone else.
Beyond August – who knows what will happen?
Thanks for reading, “Empty beaches on Boracay Island are beautiful.”
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