Boracay as Neoliberal Heaven

I joined my family for a week-long vacation in Boracay Island. Here are some cursory observations. To state the obvious, the best place to be in Boracay is the beach. The international magazine Travel + Leisure awarded Boracay as the best island in the world last year for this. And indeed Boracay’s famous White Beach is four kilometers of white sand, blue sea water, and palm trees.

Lined along this long stretch of beach are resorts, restaurants, hotels, bars, shops, and food stalls, making your vacation needs easily available to the demanding tourist. And while sandcastle-making is now prohibited unless you pay the municipal government P100 per square meter you can still do swimming, boating, scuba diving, snorkeling, windsurfing, kiteboarding, and other beach-related activities.

Stumbled upon this sandcastle made by local children for a fee.
Stumbled upon this sandcastle made by local children for a fee.

And you can also party all night. Lots of people are out in the beach during the day but Boracay is the place where everybody seems to go out of their lodging houses at night. White Beach only begins to become crowded by 6PM onward.  It’s definitely more fun in Boracay Island.

The obvious downside to all this is that everything is also very expensive, from the food, transportation, to accommodation. Ordinary food will cost you hundreds. Even McDonalds charge more in Boracay (ex. cheese burger small value meal is only P79 in Iloilo but costs over a hundred in Boracay).

This McDonalds branch charges more for the same junk.
This McDonalds branch charges more for the same junk.

Boracay is perhaps one of the most commercialized areas in the country. It moreover seems to be one of the most cramped spaces with all sorts of overlapping structures punctuating the narrow labyrinthine roads. On top of this are the slums in the island’s interior, the stench from the sewage, and the semi-permanent flooding in the side streets during the rainy season that is a stark contrast to the splendor of the White Beach.

A semi-permanent feature of the rainy season.
A semi-permanent feature of the rainy season.

Attracting foreign tourists to the beach seems to be the only thing that counts. Everything else is secondary. Prostitution is rampant, the one obvious place that gives credence to the sensational statement by Harry Thomas, US ambassador to the Philippines, two years ago that 40 percent of foreign male tourists visit the Philippines for sex. And most Ati indigenous people you find along the main throroughfares and spaces are beggars in an island historically home to their tribe.

Following the kind of cultural logic that Fredric Jameson attributes to late capitalism.
Following the kind of cultural logic that Fredric Jameson attributes to late capitalism.

Boracay must be the epitome of neoliberal globalization, a place where the market reigns supreme and where the state’s presence is predicated on the perpetuation of this reign. From the absence of history, the wacky shop names, to widespread architectural pastiche, Boracay also represents a high mark of postmodern kitsch. Boracay is the neoliberal heaven. The Philippines is rich but its people is poor is a paradox that holds true even here. But all in all, it’s not that bad if you have the money.

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7 Comments

  1. Hi! I hope you don’t mind this comment. Just want to point out some of the things you mention in this article. As to everything is very expensive in Boracay, I beg to partially disagree. True, McDonald’s cost more here but the branch is also trying its best to avoid the use of plastic/styropor. (Personally, I was one of the residents who was opposed to its entry on the island.) If you only know the right places to go, you can still eat at Php 50 per meal. A serving of meat/fish dish costs about Php 40 and rice is about Php 10.

    True, there are a number of slum areas on the island. But where in the Philippines can you not find one? Majority of the people living in these slums man the establishments and businesses along White Beach and anywhere else. These are people who come to Boracay for work (because obviously their localities don’t have the jobs for their people).

    The Atis begging on the road and on the beach are mostly from the Mainland. Many of them take the boat early in the morning, and leave the island at dusk. Granted, there are those who are based in Boracay, but their numbers can only be counted by your fingers. Some of the Boracay Atis have integrated in the community with the help of the nuns.

    Other concerns you point out are spot on! I really don’t know how long Boracay can sustain the number of tourists who come to the island. Some would even say that the island is figuratively sinking.

    1. Thank you for sharing this comment. Allow me to reply in kind. Yes, that bit on everything being expensive is hyperbolic rather than literal, but still mostly true along the White Beach where we roamed for almost a week. :)

      It is sad that in resource-rich Philippines those who labor to create the wealth do not share much of its produce and still dwell in slums. This contrast between prosperity and poverty is a sad reality even in Boracay.

  2. I’m very disappointed in you. Clearly, you are just an academic claiming to be one of ‘us’. Such a bourgeois lifestyle. Like others before you, a hypocrite. I hope you understand that being a communist isn’t by ‘ideas’ alone, it must correspond with praxis. Being in a capitalist construct, you support its perpetuation by participating in its economic activity. That’s why USSR failed, because of people like you.

    1. Hi Slavoj. Thanks for this funny bit. Right, anti-capitalists must totally avoid bourgeois tourist spots. Anti-imperialists must not eat Mcdonalds or wear Levis. Anyway, I’m not part of the academe. Neither am I a communist. More importantly, I don’t see how any “communist” can completely escape participation from all capitalist economic activity these days. After all, we are in a world capitalist system. ;)

  3. Luckily, I was able to visit Boracay back in 1998, before they went crazy building it up. Back then there were no major hotels, just smaller, privately owned places. No McDo either! — YUR

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