Tourism threatening white sand beaches, coral reefs in Asia

August 26, 2013

By SHIHO TOMIOKA/ Staff Writer

BORACAY ISLAND, Philippines--The white sand beaches make Boracay island one of the world's favorite tourist destinations.

However, over-development and a lack of social infrastructure are threatening to swallow up this valuable tourist asset.

The problem is clearly evident every day as tourists, who were at one point relaxing on deck chairs set out on the beach, have to hike up their shorts and dresses as tides come rolling in right up to where their hotels are located.

Dionisio Salme, the owner of a hotel on Boracay, said the beaches almost completely disappear at high tide.

Local ordinances require that all buildings be constructed at least 25 meters from the coast based on the high-tide line. While Salme's hotel had followed that rule, he said it was the ocean that had encroached on the shore.

The area is a prime example of beach erosion. The problem was first noticed in the 1990s, but has become more pronounced over the past few years.

"The main culprit is excessive tourism development," said Kazuo Nadaoka, a professor specializing in water environment at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who has conducted research on the coastal environment at Boracay.

In the 1980s, only about 14,000 tourists visited the island. But by 1996, the number had reached 163,000. It further increased to 556,000 in 2006 and 1.206 million in 2012.

Those are huge numbers for an island that is only 10 square kilometers.

Boracay, which is located about 300 kilometers south of Manila, has no airport, so it can only be reached by boat from a neighboring island.

The beaches shine bright white, especially in the tropical sunlight, and the sand feels like powdered sugar.

The island was chosen as the No. 1 beach location in Asia on the Internet site Trip Advisor this summer. The U.S. magazine Travel + Leisure ranked Boracay No. 2 among all islands in the world.

However, local officials have become concerned about the vanishing white sand. Last autumn, Miguel Fortes, a professor of marine ecology at the University of the Philippines, asked Nadaoka to join a research project on Boracay. Cameras were installed to observe the changes in the coastline, and water quality tests were conducted at about 30 locations on the island.

Nadaoka believes there is a vicious cycle at work in destroying the white sand beaches. The coral that surrounds Boracay has weakened, leading to a reduction in coral reefs. That makes it more difficult for the reef to serve as a buffer against incoming waves. As a result, the waves come in with greater momentum, and more sand is taken away when the waves recede. The sand, which is extremely fine, clouds the ocean the longer it floats in the water. This starves coral and algae of necessary sunlight, further weakening them.

Boracay’s sand was created from coral and algae that contain lime. Weakening of the coral means a decrease in the source that supplies the sand.

Over the past 20 years, water temperatures around Boracay have also risen, leading to coral bleaching that eventually kills off the coral. The rise in sea levels due to global warming is another problem that cannot be ignored.

Nadaoka and his colleagues believe the crisis facing the island is primarily a man-made one.

"There is a deep relationship on Boracay between human activities and the ocean ecosystem," Nadaoka said. "That has led to not only structural changes affecting living things, such as a decrease in coral, but also beach erosion. We want to clarify what environmental burdens are created by tourism development and seek out solutions backed by science that will show what kind of tourism can coexist with nature."

Until about 30 years ago, few people knew about the beaches on Boracay. It was only after German backpackers began raving about the beaches in the late 1970s that more people became interested. Full-scale tourism development began in the 1980s.

John Yap, mayor of the town of Malay that administers Boracay, said the island played a very important economic role for the entire town. Yap himself owns a hotel along the beaches of Boracay.

When Fortes, the University of the Philippines professor, first visited Boracay in the 1980s, there were only 27 hotels on the island. Now, there are about 200 lodging facilities, with the total number of rooms reaching about 5,000. The population has tripled from 20 years ago to 28,000.

However, construction of social infrastructure has not kept up with the population increase.

The largest recycling plant on the island had garbage piled about five meters high and it seemed to have reached capacity. Work on a sewage system means about 80 percent of the island will be covered by 2016.

There are at least three rain drainage pipes installed along the beaches. While the pipes are supposed to be for rainwater, they emit a foul odor.

Local residents said some people were connecting their waste pipes to the rain drainage pipes to save on sewage bills.

However, the dumping of that waste into the ocean leads to an overabundance of nutrients. As the seawater becomes murky, it interrupts the photosynthesis of the algae that provides oxygen to coral.

According to Fortes, the cover degree of coral on the seabed was 75 percent in 1990, but has shrunk to between 5 and 15 percent by 2010.

The problem of beach erosion has been exacerbated by the building of concrete walls along the coast by hotels. While the walls of several dozens of centimeters high are designed to prevent flooding when typhoons hit, when waves hit those vertical walls, the receding strength of the waves increases and more sand is taken away.

Fortes said that the island had exceeded its natural limits and there was the possibility that the white sand beaches would one day become a lost paradise that only remained in people’s memories.


Boracay is not the only location that has seen the destruction of its coral due to rapid tourism development.

Makoto Omori, the director of the Akajima Marine Science Laboratory on Okinawa, is an expert on coral preservation. He remembers being shocked when he visited Koh Samui island in Thailand three years ago. In the past, it was known for the beautiful ocean from the surf's edge until where the coral reef began.

"Hotels were standing until almost the coastline, and sewage was being dumped into the ocean," Omori said. "The seawater was murky, and only a small amount of coral remained."

According to a report released last year by the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, about 60 percent of the world's coral reefs were being threatened by factors other than climate change such as human activity in the form of coastal development and overfishing.

When limited just to the so-called Coral Triangle in Southeast Asia, the threatened coral reef reaches 85 percent of the total.

Omori said that large resort developments in Egypt and Mexico also led to a depletion of coral, which in turn led to a decrease in tourists.

He added that the problem was also evident in Okinawa where the construction of hotels and unnecessary roads have hurt coral.

"We have to think of tourism that is not focused on the number of tourists, but rather on how to preserve local natural treasures through the combined efforts of visitors and local residents," Omori said.

By SHIHO TOMIOKA/ Staff Writer
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Tourists walk in the surf as high tide covers the white sand beach on Boracay island. (Yusaku Kanagawa)

Tourists walk in the surf as high tide covers the white sand beach on Boracay island. (Yusaku Kanagawa)

  • Tourists walk in the surf as high tide covers the white sand beach on Boracay island. (Yusaku Kanagawa)
  • Tourists relax along the white sand beach of Boracay island at low tide. (Yusaku Kanagawa)
  • The smell from the drainage ditch indicates that rainwater is not the only element entering the ocean. (Yusaku Kanagawa)
  • Garbage is piled high at a recycling center on Boracay island. (Yusaku Kanagawa)

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