The Philippines on Friday reopened its globally popular beach destination of Boracay Island to tourists after a six-month closure to address environmental problems.
"Welcome back to Boracay! Or, would it be better to say, Welcome back, Boracay?" Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said at the reopening ceremony held at the island's port.
Flanked by Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu and Public Works Secretary Mark Villar, among many other ranking officials of agencies involved in the island's rehabilitation, Romulo-Puyat said, "On behalf of the Boracay Inter-Agency Task Force, Boracay is now officially declared open to all!"
"I feel happy. I think many people are here," Manila resident Jennifer Aguilera, 28, told Kyodo News upon stepping ashore the island from a ferry, with a party of 10 returning visitors.
French tourist Pierre Rolland, 31, who arrived on the island with his Filipino girlfriend, said he expects to see a "cleaner" Boracay after undergoing rehabilitation since its April 26 closure.
German tourist Josef Fuchs, 61, echoed Rolland's thoughts. "Less crowded, more controlled (activities of tourists), and cleaner beach," are his expectations, he said.
The 1,060-hectare island, located some 310 kilometers south of the capital Manila, has been hailed as having one of the greatest beaches in the world. It was ordered closed by President Rodrigo Duterte in April after describing it as a "cesspool" of water pollution.
The bold decision was implemented despite the expected economic loss and the direct impact on tens of thousands of workers and local residents.
During the so-called Phase 1 of the cleanup, Philippine authorities conducted removal of illegal pipes, cleared illegal structures, widened roads, and upgraded the island's wastewater management system as well as of solid waste disposal.
The island's most-popular section, White Beach, is noticeably cleaner, with beach beds and chairs prohibited within the 30-meter beach front under the new rules.
"There are many prohibited activities like, currently, water sports cannot be expected here now, as well as fire dancing. Actually, it won't be like Boracay without fire dancing," returning tourist Neil Santiago, 22, from Manila, lamented.
"Although I feel I might get disappointed, but I could also just look and enjoy the nature of Boracay," he added.
Starting from Friday's reopening, the government will start capping daily tourist arrivals at 6,405 individuals to ensure that the island's carrying capacity of 54,945, which includes residents and migrants and workers, is not breached.
So far, out of 455 hotels and other lodging facilities on the island, 157 have reopened. The rest cannot do so until cleared by the Departments of Tourism, Interior and Environment based on their compliance with all government requirements, including those related to the environment.
The government is now prohibiting large parties on the beach, as well as smoking and drinking in public places. Open fires and the use of kerosene gas or fuel are also no longer allowed on the beach.
A number of rehabilitation projects are ongoing, including road construction and the clean-up of other beach sections, as Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the plan are expected to be completed by April and December next year, respectively.
"As we welcome a better Boracay, the Department of Tourism urges everyone to be responsible tourists. It is the key to the preservation of this national treasure," Romulo-Puyat said.
"The Boracay experience is the ultimate lesson in balancing development and protecting the environment," she added.
Boracay received 2,001,974 tourists in 2017, almost equally split by domestic and foreign visitors, generating more than 56 billion pesos (over $1 billion) in tourism receipts. Among the foreign guests, Chinese and Koreans make up the majority.