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When Manila locks down, Boracay flatlines

By Tanya Lara Published Aug 06, 2021 6:05 pm Updated Aug 07, 2021 12:28 am

Three hundred and seventy-eight kilometers from Manila, on the day before it was put yet again on a hard lockdown and domestic flights banned, fishermen Litlit and Arnold were walking on Boracay’s empty White Beach with their catch early in the morning.

Each man had a bamboo pole on his shoulder—Arnold was selling squid and Litlit, scallops. Each pole had 10 plastic bags, five in front and five at the back to balance the weight on their shoulders.

They caught the squid and scallops in the waters of Hambil, an island that belongs to the province of Romblon, but if you stand on Ilig-Iligan beach on the northeastern part of Boracay, you can see in the distance the boats fishing for maya-maya, snappers and all sorts of fish that end up in the restaurants and hotels of Boracay.

The men had come from Station 3, where most of the paluto restaurants are located, but even these are now closed since the island was put under MECQ this week.

Litlit’s scallops were priced at P200 per kilo and Arnold’s squid at P350. The paluto stalls in turn sell them to tourists for P600 per kilo and charge separately for the cooking.

By the time both fishermen reached Station 1, a good two and a half kilometers from where they started, all 10 bags on their shoulders were still intact.

Neither of them had made a single sale.

Fishermen Litlit (right) and Arnold ply their catch on an empty White Beach.  Photos by Tanya Lara 

They were hoping, they said, some restaurants would remain open, that some tourists had stayed. But it felt like it was 2020 again when the magnitude of the pandemic was just beginning to dawn on the entire world, and the island was shuttered for months, isolated from the rest of the country.

What little Arnold and Litlit make—if they do any at all—goes to buy NFA rice.

Litlit said, “Gutom na naman ngayong mga araw na darating.”

“Di na namin alam kung ano ang gagawin namin,” Arnold said, shaking his head.

Litlit with maya-maya, snapper and talakitok on the second time I saw him. 

Fishermen all their lives, they make just enough money to survive when there are tourists in Boracay; when there are no tourists it’s a nightmare that recurs all too often since 2018, when the island was closed without much advance notice either.

Bracing for disaster

When it rains in Boracay, it drops like a sack of potatoes from a tall building. It hits the ground with large drops, sending people to scramble for cover.

In the same way, when ECQ is declared in Manila, Boracay’s business owners, hotel and restaurant workers, small vendors, fishermen scramble to take cover but, really, the financial hits are unavoidable.

Obviously, decisions about Manila affect the entire country but none more so than Boracay. The island has no industry other than tourism. It doesn’t export anything to other regions, it doesn’t grow anything beyond what it consumes. Even its souvenirs are made elsewhere.

Pre-pandemic, D'Mall would be filled with tourists in the afternoon. Today, it's largely empty. 

When there are no flights from Manila, it’s like turning the tap off in Boracay. More than 90 percent of tourists that come to Boracay are from NCR (National Capital Region), whose population of nearly 15 million people consider the island their top choice for rest and relaxation.

Before the pandemic, Boracay was receiving 6,000 tourists a day or 2.1 million a year. When the pandemic hit, the island lost P57 billion in revenues in 2020.

When it reopened on Oct. 1, 2020, only 35 tourists arrived.

But this is Boracay, of course people would come! So the numbers began climbing to the hundreds. In the first week of March arrivals were hovering just below 1,000 a day—still far from pre-pandemic level but they were steadily going up.

As businesses were getting ready for the Easter peak, everything again collapsed when Malacañang Palace declared ECQ over Metro Manila, again cutting off flights to the island.

“We thought the recovery was beginning, that finally we’d catch a break. Then everything fell apart, it was like the rest of the summer was cancelled. We had to let go of our workers again,” a restaurateur told me.

Kasbar has closed its bar and rooms upstairs for the duration of Manila’s ECQ. 

When Manila slid into GCQ with restrictions in June and flights resumed, everyone again had their employees tested before bringing them back.

An airline executive told me in June, when I asked what destinations people in Manila were booking , “Boracay. They all rushed to Boracay.”

And it wasn’t just the cancelled passengers from Holy Week (I was one of them). “It was like people got tired of the Manila lockdowns since March, they all just wanted to go to Boracay.”

When one restaurateur reopened in July, he made a promise to his staff that they would stay open no matter happens in Manila—or Boracay for that matter. “If we closed they would have no source of income again. The goal of businesses these days is to just break even, but even that seems impossible now.”

Massage therapist Rose in July, before Aklan declared MECQ on Aug. 4.

Boracay was put under MECQ this week, which means restaurants may remain open but only for takeout and delivery, not dine-in. Then yesterday, Aug. 5, Aklan Province amended its Executive Order 020 and declared that business establishments, with the exception of clinics and pharmacies, can only operate until 4 p.m.

This includes food delivery—as though people would stop getting hungry beyond 4 p.m.

Rose, a massage therapist at one of the spas in D’Mall, told me in early July that when the island first locked down she started making merienda to sell to her neighbors, except everybody was doing the same.

She lives in a one-room rental with a shared kitchen with her husband—a delivery rider—and their children. During that first lockdown, when she had no salary, her landlord didn’t ask her to pay rent, just the utilities.

Originally from Antipolo, Rose first came to Boracay more than 10 years ago when her boss opened this spa. She met a man, married him, they had children and never wanted to leave.

A quiet place

I’ve seen Boracay near empty twice: in December 2018 when it just reopened after its rehabilitation and in December 2020 when it reopened during the pandemic.

As I write this at Station 2, I am looking out to the sea from one of few restos open. There is no one in the water and very few people are walking on the beach.

There is something different about the shutdown this time around. You can feel it in the air, in the silence along the main corridor of D’Mall where most of the shops have remained closed for over a year, on the beach where you lose count of establishments that are closed.

Defeat hangs in the air. So does frustration. There is a kind of resignation among business owners to decisions made in Malacañang Palace, in Aklan and Caticlan that don’t make a lot of sense but affect the islanders in tremendous ways.

Station 2, usually filled with people, is now quiet too.

This morning, I ran into Litlit again at Station 1 in front of my hotel. His bamboo pole had fish hooked on it this time—three snappers, one talakitok, a large red maya-maya that would have been served to a large family in a hotel or restaurant. They would have asked what the cook would recommend: escabeche or steamed with ginger and lemongrass? Or maybe the smaller talakitok would be for soup, something a little sour for the rainy night.

I asked him if he had sold his scallops from yesterday. He said no. He had to release them back into the water by mid-morning (he sells them alive). What about Arnold’s squid? Ah, those have been put in ice to stop them from spoiling.

I wonder how long I would see Litlit plying his fish on the empty beach as the island’s MECQ lockdown has just begun. I wonder, too, how many more of his catch he will have to throw back into the sea.