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‘Castle boys’ in shifting sands of Boracay closure

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A boy makes a sand castle on the Philippine island of Boracay. The government closed off the holiday-favourite island to tourists for months-long clean up. AFP

BORACAY (AFP) – Jessler Magbanua has been sculpting elaborate sand castles for tourist tips on the Philippine resort island of Boracay for years, but now that it is shut for clean-up he will have to switch to mixing cement.

The six-month closure of Boracay to holidaymakers starting yesterday is forcing thousands of workers employed by the bustling tourist trade to adapt in order to survive.

Mr Magbanua, a so-called “castle boy”, said he would look for construction work in the absence of the lucrative business of creating sand art for photo snapping holidaymakers.

“I will just be doing (manual) labour. I will mix cement,” Mr Magbanua, 17, told AFP on how he’ll adapt.

“There is no other work to be had here. I will just go into construction.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered Boracay closed for clean-up after calling it a “cesspool”, saying local business owners were dumping sewage into the island’s once pristine waters.

Boracay has been a top Philippine destination, morphing from a backpacker paradise in the 1980s to an increasingly developed beach resort, fuelled by a quadrupling of visitors in just a decade.

The island saw some two million visitors last year, pumping roughly $1 billion in revenue into the Philippine economy.

The boom also made Boracay a magnet for Filipinos seeking well-paying jobs that they failed to find in rural areas or urban centres like the capital Manila.

The closure will impact the livelihood of 17,000 hotel, restaurant and other tourism workers, plus about 11,000 construction workers.

Mr Magbanua says he used to earn 1,000 pesos daily ($19) before the shutdown, more than double the local minimum wage.

“I really want to have lots of tourists on Boracay,” he said near one of his creations that spells out the island’s name.

Many workers were prepared to join the tourist exodus, as they headed home to other parts of the country.

Life on the island comes at a high cost as prices are inflated for the tourist market.

Faustino Cruz said he would return to becoming a coconut farmer in his province southeast of Manila after working his way up as a resort chef.

“It’s backbreaking work on the farm and the income is only every three months. It’s half of what I make here but we just have to bear it because I have young children to support,” Mr Cruz told AFP.

Like Mr Cruz, hotel masseuse Dory Gaitano told her family sacrifices must be made.

She asked her eldest child, a university student, to stop going to school in the meantime.

“My kids were frowning. They were against it. I said what can I do, Boracay is closed?”

Mr Duterte earlier said he would release two billion pesos ($38.2 million) to help the workers, but many said they have not seen a penny yet.

The impact is hardest on informal workers like Iflin Bayato, who braids tourists’ hair for a living.

“Who will I cater to? The police have short hair!” she told AFP.

In some cases entire businesses were moving.

Milky Maming on Wednesday moved his 160-strong staff to a branch in central Cebu island as he would have no more customers for his water sports business.

“Businesses like ours are fleeing everywhere. Some are in Cebu or Bohol. We are looking for tourists so we can help our staff,” Mr Maming told AFP, referring to other tourist islands.

Mr Magbanua, the sandcastle maker, said he would stay on the island along with his buddies who would also do construction work.

“All of us have the same plan. Maybe we can just build the sandcastles on the road,” he said with a laugh.

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