Hotel owner Leonard Tirol, 63, had watched his native island of Boracay prosper from tourism but also pay a price as crowds and unfettered development besoiled their slice of paradise.

So he almost could not believe it when he heard that sea turtles - and even a baby shark - had returned this past month to waters close to the powdery white-sand shores.

"It is like the sea has become alive again," Tirol said.

That is what government planners in the Philippines had hoped for. They are in the midst of an unprecedented overhaul of the island - carting away tons of rubbish and upgrading old sewage and drainage systems - that closed one of the world's most famed beach destinations for six months.


The bold move has won some praise for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, more known for calling for killings of suspected drug dealers than as a champion of the environment.

But experts wonder if the closure - which put 17,000 jobs on six-month furlough and cost an estimated US$1 billion in lost tourism revenue - has been anything more than a feel-good stopgap in a place that was packed with more than 2 million tourist last year.

Since it was reopened late October, travellers have started to return to the palm-fringed island, just three times the size of Manhattan's Central Park, in the center of the Philippines archipelago.

But the return of vehicles and tour vans has complicated efforts to finish a new drainage and road network.

Meanwhile, businesses have lost millions and complain about some of the new restrictions, particularly on clubs and bars, imposed as Boracay tries to exchange its party-island reputation for something quieter and more eco-friendly. Some have simply packed up and left for other tourism hot spots across the country, moving the tourist strain to other small islands.

Boracay, experts predict, will become a test-case in whether increasingly crowded get-aways across the world, from Mallorca in Spain to Thailand's Similan Islands, can recover from decades of over-tourism and environmental damage.

Boracay is trying to switch its party-island reputation to something quieter and more eco-friendly. Photo / Getty Images
Boracay is trying to switch its party-island reputation to something quieter and more eco-friendly. Photo / Getty Images

The issue is increasingly urgent as tourism grows worldwide, fueled in part by rising incomes in places such as China.

"The question for governments is how do you decide when to reopen these places? And when you reopen them, do you have systems in place to make sure the recovery continues?" said Susanne Becken, director of the Griffith Institute of Tourism in Queensland, Australia, and an expert on sustainable tourism.


"If those systems are not in place, it will go back to what it was before," she added.

The push to turn Boracay around, officials say, was launched when Duterte saw videos of untreated waste and sewage being dumped into the open water. He insisted on sealing the island off totally, decrying it as a "cesspool," according to the accounts.

"He did it. Nobody comprehended that it could be done," said Jonas Leones, the undersecretary for policy and planning at the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. "But because of the president's desire to rehabilitate the island, and to be an example to other tourists destinations, . . . he declared it closed."

Boracay reopened October 26 with a smaller number of hotels operating and limits on the number of tourists allowed to visit. New rules banned drinking and smoking on the beach, and even building sand castles.

But the island still has the look of a work in progress.

In mid-November, chaos reigned on the road leading from a ferry terminal, the access point for tourists, to a 34km strip of beach where most resorts and restaurants are located.

Road work has caused snaking, bumper-to-bumper traffic. A total overhaul of the sewage system means underground pipes are exposed. At an area near the shopping hub, D'Mall, there is the unmistakable smell of sewage.

But the white beach itself is pristine - and quiet. Noticeably absent is the blaring music from the bars and nightclubs that had transformed Boracay into a party spot in recent years.

"You hear that? It is the ocean. I can finally hear the ocean again," said Willy Berger, a French diving instructor who has been on the island for 21 years. "The pub crawls, the bars, that's not what we need here."

The island, residents and business owners say, was once a simple place, with an indigenous population happy to live off the natural vegetation, grow rice and travel the island largely on foot.

Travellers have started to return to Boracay following its reopening. Photo / Getty Images
Travellers have started to return to Boracay following its reopening. Photo / Getty Images

"It was paradise," said Triol, the hotel owner, who is president of the Boracay Foundation, an association for businesses. "There were no vehicles, not even motorcycles, and we just made it by walking from end to end."

Boracay started opening up to tourists in the 1970s, but most business operators say things really got out of hand in the early 2000s. The island landed on multiple "must visit" lists, and in 2012 was named by the travel review website TripAdvisor as the world's second-best beach, after a small island in the Turks and Caicos.

As hordes of tourists arrived, dozens of hotels cropped up, violating laws and local regulations by building structures too close to the beach, failing to install their own wastewater treatment tanks and connecting their sewage pipes illegally into the drainage system.

The waste - including kitchen water and cooking oil - was flowing out to Bulabog Beach, a popular spot for wind- and kite-surfing. Business owners interviewed by The Washington Post brought up widespread corruption that kept this system running, allowing some to flout the rules and degrade the environment while making a tidy profit.

"It would seem that there was a failure of government on the part of the local government," said Leones, the Philippine environmental official.

More than 100 of these hotels remain closed, and some are facing legal action. Some will be demolished. The few that have casinos will have to wind down their gambling operations.

Sunset at White Beach in Boracay Island. Photo / Getty Images
Sunset at White Beach in Boracay Island. Photo / Getty Images

Strict procedures are now in place to ensure that operational hotels comply with local laws, have their own waste management systems and carefully track tourists who arrive. Before taking a short boat ride to Boracay's main jetty, all tourists entering the island must register with authorities, who will ensure that they are staying in an accredited hotel for a predetermined and specified number of days - limiting the number of backpackers, but also preventing well-heeled tourists from extending their vacations.

Authorities are also mulling limiting the number of tourist arrivals by putting a cap on the number of flights that arrive and the number of hotel rooms available.

Tourism authorities in the Philippines, meanwhile, are scoping out other hot spots, like El Nido, popular with divers, and Siargao, a famed destination among surfers, to see if they need to be similarly rehabilitated.

In El Nido, on the island of Palawan, they have found that lagoons are getting dirty and polluted and have warned businesses to abide by laws and get things under control.

"We don't want to close El Nido, just [have businesses] comply with the environmental laws," said Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, secretary of the Department of Tourism.

But experts say other regional examples offer a cautionary tale.

When Thailand closed Maya Bay, made popular by the Leonardo DiCaprio film "The Beach," tour operators just started moving elsewhere, bringing hundreds of new tourists to other islands.

"Dispersal isn't always a good idea, because you expose even more places to tourism," said Becken at the Griffith Institute of Tourism. "At the end of the day, you just can't have a billion or more tourists having an ecotourism experience."