Friday, January 15, 2010

Philippines - Airport restrictions hurting Boracay tourism

FLYING TO THE WORLD-FAMOUS Boracay Island for a weekend getaway in one of its many resorts used to be a fast, convenient and affordable experience for hundreds of thousands of foreign and local tourists each year.

Up until the third quarter of last year, visitors could fly from Manila to nearby Caticlan airport in as little as 35 minutes, take a short ferry ride to the island’s white sand beaches, and check into a hotel room within an hour and a half of leaving the metropolis.

All this changed when aviation authorities imposed flight restrictions on Caticlan airport after a string of aircraft accidents and “near misses.” That left only high-end niche carrier Southeast Asian Airline as the sole operator to the gateway of Boracay.

More affordable flights operated by PAL Express, Cebu Pacific and Zest Air—all of which charged cheaper fare—had to be diverted to Kalibo Airport which is a two-hour land trip away from Caticlan.

“The effects of this flight diversions really hit the local tourism industry badly,” said Ike Guanio, who is the chief operating officer of Boracay’s sprawling Fairways and Bluewater Resort Golf and Country Club.

“At one point, [reservation] cancellations [for local resort hotels] reached as high as 70 percent,” he added. “We were all affected.”

In an interview with the Inquirer, Guanio explained that a large number of tourists who visit Boracay Island do so during weekends, flying in on Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings, and returning to Manila or Cebu on Sunday afternoons.

The limited operations of Caticlan airport—which forced most airlines to fly tourists in via Kalibo—had turned off many potential travelers, putting a dampener on the island’s multimillion-peso tourism industry.

“Time is precious for weekend tourists,” Guanio said. “They don’t want to spend half of Saturday getting to Boracay and half of Sunday getting out of Boracay.”

“Right now, it has become really inconvenient for people to come to Boracay, especially if they fly in via Kalibo,” he said, pointing to the approaching peak summer travel season. “We need Caticlan to resume operations to restore, or even improve, tourist traffic.”

Over the long term, what is needed is for Caticlan airport’s 900-meter runway to be extended to at least 1,800 meters for it to be able to accommodate the Airbus A320 aircraft.

For the short term, a 50-meter-high hill on one end of the runway has to be reduced in size. According to the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (Caap), the hill prevents larger turboprop aircraft from flying in and out of the airport.

The challenge was taken up by the the Caticlan International Airport Development Corp. (CIADC), a consortium majority-owned by businessman George Yang, more famously known for bringing the McDonald’s fastfood chain to the country.

With a P2.5-billion bid, CIADC secured a 25-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) deal to extend the runway and build a new terminal for the airport.

Recently, however, the deal has come under intense attack from critics who claim that the airport expansion will adversely affect the environment on Boracay Island, which is separated form Caticlan by a deep channel.

In particular, critics of the deal have presented to the media one environment official who claimed that the development plan would eventually cause Boracay’s white sand beaches to be eroded.

In several interviews made with local stakeholders, however, another motive has emerged for the opponents of the Caticlan airport expansion: property speculation.

“There’s another group that’s pushing for the development of an international airport on Carabao Island,” said Aklan lawmaker Florencio Miraflores. “It’s just a proposal [at this point], but it’s being aggressively marketed as an alternative project.”

Along with other local officials, Miraflores believes that business—and not the environment—is the root of the opposition to the Caticlan airport expansion

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