Boracay – Fantasy vs. Reality

From CNN to the New York Times to Yahoo, Boracay is consistently named among the world’s top beach destinations. Twice Boracay has been dubbed the best beach destination in the world by Conde Nast. Top 10 Beach lists across the globe regularly feature the powder sands of Boracay, the Philippines’ pride and joy. But for experienced travelers, all that attention might send up some warning flags. Could any destination hold up to that much marketing hype?

There is truth to the fantasy of Boracay. Kilometers of criss-crossing palms back some of the most perfect waters in Asia. The stunning sands of Boracay’s White Beach extend far out into the ocean creating what could be, with fewer boats, an ideal swimming beach. There are few underwater rocks, virtually no annoying sea urchins, no sand flies – just crystal clear waters straight out of a luxury travel brochure.

Yes, Boracay is beautiful. Twenty years ago, it would have been completely stunning. But as with many destinations in Asia, it is drowning under the weight of its own beauty. Overdevelopment is the most noticeable problem. Virtually the entire length of the 7-kilometer White Beach is backed by tightly packed resorts, restaurants, and shops. Smaller, low-impact backpacker enclaves hidden beneath the palms have quickly been replaced with blocky behemoths sandwiched into tiny lots of land. Actually, some of the high-end resorts have been so squished into the sprawl that they are bordering on funny. It’s quite telling that many of these places sell postcards made before the construction boom. One noticeable exception to the overdevelopement is the stretch of beach in front of our small rental house, which is where I shot the “fantasy” pictures above.

In places, especially around the northern end of White Beach, the construction oozes out onto the beach itself. It is not surprising that in these areas erosion and algae growth can make the beach much less attractive. Beach lovers who inadvertently book rooms in these areas expecting a view of the pristine beaches depicted in hotel brochures and promotional posters might be a bit disappointed.

But I knew all this before I came to Boracay. And I came here anyway. I knew that the backpackers who “discovered” Boracay in the 70s had been replaced by large tour groups, and that White Beach had become the Philippine version of Miami Beach. I set my mind on learning to appreciate this beauty, even though she was a bit past her prime.

Many visitors, especially Asian tourists who are less interested in the beach itself and more interested in the food and nightlife, love Boracay just the way it is. They enjoy the parties, the beach bars, the amazing food. They enjoy D’Mall, the arcade of shops featuring tourist kitsch for everyone. There are plenty of snorkeling trips and party cruises. Active beach lovers can go scuba diving, parasailing, wake-boarding or kite-boarding. If you need something goofier, you can go beach zorbing. There is plenty to do.

And the beaches are stunning – and strangely photogenic. Even when I tried to take some less attractive photographs to highlight some of White Beach’s problems, the photos turned out remarkably beautiful. In fact, on good days, it’s quite difficult to take a bad picture of White Beach. And if you need a bit of pristine beach, Puka Shell Beach on the north coast has somehow miraculously been spared the development plaguing most of Boracay’s other beaches. Puka Shell Beach is still pure fantasy.

But not all days are good days. Over the course of our two-week stay in Boracay, we witnessed tremendous differences in the look of the beach. Storms can stir up choppy, murky waters. Extreme tides can make the beach less attractive. And for two days, northern stretches of White Beach and Diniwid Beach were covered with a layer of spinach-like seaweed. It is important to remember that all fantasy destinations have their bad days.

So is Boracay the best beach destination in the world? Although it is still pretty, the 21st-century incarnation of White Beach certainly wouldn’t make it into my list of top 10 beaches. To be fair, I have ridiculously high standards. The good news is that Puka Shell Beach would. But lists are beside the point. Boracay is the Philippines’ favorite destination – you have to go, you have to see it. It’s still a lot of fun and it has some of the best food in the country.

Tips for Visiting Boracay

Budget travelers will find Boracay a little painful. Prices are much higher here than in other parts of the Philippines. In high season, a cheap room can set you back 1200-2000 Pesos ($27-$45) a night. However, we visited during the low season and found a great little house for rent for a remarkable 800 Pesos ($18) a night. (And we had great weather.)

High end travelers should be a little cautious when booking accommodation in Boracay. The brochures can be quite misleading. Many of the mid-range and high-end resorts on White Beach are not as big or as nice as they look. Make sure you know what you’re booking.

And don’t assume price guarantees you the best beach, it doesn’t. For example, the first two pictures in this post showing the pristine stretch of beach were shot on the same day as the last photo showing the gross, sea-weed covered stretch. On that particular day, those who booked hotels near Station 1 were swimming in what looked like spinach soup. There’s definitely luck involved!

10 responses to “Boracay – Fantasy vs. Reality”

  1. avatar Jeremy says:

    I totally agree with you!

    I am in fact in Boracay at this moment. Though it is nice, it is nearly impossible to enjoy some quiet time on the beach.

    I’d visited Coron and El Nido prior to my arrival in Boracay, they actually hold more interest to me due to their unspoiled beauty and landscape. Hence, serious explorations are involved. Just to name a few, Banol beach in Coron, Helicopter in El Nido…. they score much higher on my list.

    Just like you, White Beach of Boracay would not make top of my list.

  2. See, to me, blank white sand and glass-clear water equal one thing – sterile. The photos ARE beautiful, in a lifeless, modern art sort of way. But that beach itself (not considering any fabulous nightlife, etc.) would interest me for about one day.

    It’s heartening to see the photo with the”gross seaweed”. It, and the murky water mean that somewhere nearby the water is productive enough to actually support life.

    Ahhh . . . messy, icky, gross . . . LIFE!

  3. avatar Tony says:

    Hi Jeremy,

    We were in Palawan before Boracay and I agree that Palawan is spectacular. Bonol was quite nice and many of beaches in the Bacuit Archipeligo were stunning. Helicopter beach was, by far, one of our favorite beaches in the Philippines. We also loved the beach located north of the Poyuy-Poyuy River in Sabang.

  4. avatar Tony says:

    Hey Laurelle,

    I think if you spent a little time with us, you might change your mind. You are someone who sees beauty in environments because of their rarity and fragility. A patch of seasonal desert flowers, an especially old tree, etc. You see color in a palate of browns or greys where others might just see dull.

    You also appreciate environmental uniqueness, the rarer the better. For that reason, I think you could learn to worship the perfect white-sand beach. They are becoming rarer. And finding a pristine white-sand environment in coming decades might become impossible.

    When we first got to Boracay and I saw northern stretches of White Beach, I thought get me out of here. But slowly, I began to notice how unique the beaches of Boracay are. The sweep of continuous sand far out into the water creates a spectacular color play as storms move through. Swimming in Boracay is phenomenal. It’s also fascinating how the grains of sand change as you move around the island, it looks like grains become finer as you move counterclockwise from north to west.

    The strange, sandy sea floor attracts many varieties of sand-colored fish and crabs (color gets you eaten in a pure white environment) which would gather around your feet and stare at your toes. The beaches are anything but lifeless, but the sea life is much more subtle.

    No, something tells me Laurelle would like it just as much as me. But she would also be just as critical of the development.

  5. avatar Sid says:

    Thank you for the excellent write-up.

  6. avatar Shinette says:

    Thanks for the blog about Boracay. I’ve booked my trip there for end of October (my 3rd time). The first trip there was in 2005, and I have to say, I was blown away. The snorkeling experience was so much fun as we saw so many beautiful fish and corals. However, when I went back in 2007, I was very disappointed and noticed that in area we snorkeled in, most of the corals were dead and hadly any fish around. I was afraid that when I come back a few years later, there really won’t be any more beauty left in Boracay, as I agree, it is overdeveloped and drowning in commercialism. I am looking forward to seeing Bohol for the first time, and if budget allows, Palawan.

  7. avatar Rachel says:

    First time i´ve been in Boracay was 1989. Been living there 6 months a year till year 2003. Then it sudenly became all too much. 1989 there was no electricity, no fax, no internet, no phones, no high rise resorts, no shopping malls like that D´mall, nothing but simple island people in their warm cozy nipa huts who welcomed us with true friendly warm smiles who proudly showed us the island. I fell in love with the island. It was my paradise.

    All that is replaced with polluting vehicles, hungry investors who´d do and ruin anything for the sake of profit and money hungry politicians who dont have any concern at all for the locals. I am a filipina myself and i am embarrased by the way our corrupt politicians treat their own country and countrymen.

    My aughter was born in Boracay, i have met the best of friends in Boracay but sadly i have decided not to go back because of he fact that it always break my heart whenever i see what`s happening to the island…. the one that once was my paradise xxx

  8. avatar Kim Garcia says:

    Boracay is a paradise, indeed! I’ve been there for the nth time and I still love it. Though it’s been really populated, I still enjoy the place, the nightlife and love the hotels in Bora.

  9. avatar Marco says:

    Boracay is one of the most beautiful islands of the world and it has become a tourist hub. If you want to find an island paradise that’s pristine go somewhere else, just be warned that the conditions at these island paradises are often primitive. Some of the people writing here are filipinos, I personally cannot eat local filipino food, it’s such low quality. I need at least some normal food in my diet, so I cannot go to some remote island paradise. I even found Panglao island extremely limited in options and undeveloped for my taste. Boracay has a lot of amenities that I like. So stop complaining about Boracay, it is what it is, the Queen of Philippines tourism. Many ouf us like the amenities it comes with. If it’s not your thing, there’s numerous less developed places to go.

    • avatar Tony says:

      Hi Marco, We are not complaining, we are presenting a dose of reality. The Philippines promotes Boracay as the ultimate paradise island, but for many people that promotion will lead to major disappointment. In fact, compared to many bloggers, our coverage was downright generous. Many more recent posts have condemned the island a polluted, ruined tourist hell. We spent 5 months in the Philippines, so we have seen many places off the beaten track. That fact that remote islands exist does not change the realities associated with Boracay. The truth is that sloppy overdevelopment, corruption, pollution and over-promotion have severely damaged what was once the jewel of the Philippines.

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