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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Boracay shutdown triggers tourism industry chaos

The Philippines' tourism industry scrambled on Friday to manage the fallout from the temporary shutdown of its world-famous Boracay island, which threw into chaos trips planned by hundreds of thousands of tourists.

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the once idyllic white-sand resort closed to visitors for up to six months from April 26, after calling the country's top tourist draw a "cesspool" tainted by raw sewage.

Hundreds of Boracay hotels, as well as restaurants, tour operators and business establishments were on Friday undertaking the daunting process of unwinding bookings for rooms, flights, weddings and other events and facilities.

"Some people are cursing us ... it's nasty," said Christine Ibarreta, president of the national Hotel Sales and Marketing Association.

"I hope no mess and no chaos," she added. "We just want it to be orderly."

Ms Ibarreta said "hundreds of thousands" of bookings made as far as two years in advance - potentially worth millions of dollars for hotels and other tourism services - would have to be either cancelled and refunded, or rebooked.

"Some people are okay but some people cannot understand," said tour operator Clang Garcia.

Clients are typically offered a refund or an alternatibe destination "to save the account", she said.

Domingo Enerio, the retired former head of the government's Tourism Promotions Board, said some of the cancelled bookings contained non-refundable conditions and would have to be renegotiated or credited for future use.

Under the government plan police, or even soldiers, will be deployed to keep tourists away from the tiny central Philippine island, while residents will be issued special identification cards to ensure continued access while Boracay is rehabilitated.

Domestic airlines announced on Thursday that they would scale back the number of flights to the 1,000-hectare island.

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Read more:

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Industry officials say Boracay accounts for about 20 per cent of the country's tourism revenues, and fear a longer-term fallout on the Philippines' image as a tourism destination.

"Overall it looks bleak," said Mr Enerio, the former tourism official. "Boracay will definitely take a hit and the Philippine tourism industry will take a hit."

The threat of closure first emerged in February when Mr Duterte blasted the island's hotels, restaurants and other businesses, accusing them of dumping sewage directly into the sea.

Authorities said on Thursday that some businesses were using the island's drainage system to send untreated sewage into its surrounding turquoise waters.

Ms Ibarreta, the hotel industry official, said the six-month tourist ban would likely mean the industry will lose some of its 17,000 workers in Boracay.

"So we'll have to retrain people [after the ban is lifted] and that's expensive," she said.