Flashes of past paradise as Philippines' Boracay empties for makeover

BORACAY, Philippines, April 26 (Reuters) - Volunteers combed near-empty beaches and workers boarded up shops on the island of Boracay on Thursday, as the Philippines' top tourist spot closed for a six-month makeover aimed at rescuing it from ruin.

For the first time in years, Boracay's most famous beach was almost deserted. Gone were the lines of umbrellas and sun loungers, as well as hordes of tourists and vendors, that characterized the explosive, unchecked growth of what was once a quiet paradise island.

Boracay was officially closed to non-residents as of midnight on Wednesday to undergo rehabilitation ordered three weeks ago by President Rodrigo Duterte, angered by a video he had seen of black sewage pouring into the sea at a Boracay beach.

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Boracay shut down amid massive cleanup
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Boracay shut down amid massive cleanup
Policemen collect trash at Bulabog beach in the holiday island of Boracay during the first day of a temporary closure for tourists, in Philippines April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A policeman asks a tourist to leave the beach during the shutdown of the holiday island Boracay, in Philippines April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A resident walks his dog in an empty beach during the shutdown of the holiday island Boracay, in Philippines April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A sand sculpture is seen along the beach, a day before the temporary closure of the holiday island Boracay, in the Philippines April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A saleswoman looks out from a glass window of a clothing store, a day before the temporary closure of the holiday island Boracay in the Philippines April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A sewage pipe is seen along the seashore of Bulabog beach, a day before the temporary closure of the holiday island Boracay, in the Philippines April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
Tourists watch sunset aboard sailboats, one day before the temporary closure of the holiday island Boracay, in the Philippines April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
Filipino workers demolish West Cove resort two days before the temporary closure of the holiday island Boracay in the Philippines April 24, 2018. Picture taken April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
Tourists jog near soldiers taking part in a military and police drill in preparation for the temporary closure of the holiday island Boracay in Philippines April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A view of a rock formation transformed into a mini park in the closed West Cove resort on Boracay island, in Philippines April 10, 2018. Picture taken April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A tourist reads a Boracay island closure notice at the airport at Boracay in the Philippines April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A waitress writes on a board outside a restaurant near uncollected sacks containing waste from clogged sewage pipes along the main road on Boracay island, in Philippines April 10, 2018. Picture taken April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A sewage pipe is seen along the shore of Bulabog beach on Boracay island, Philippines April 10, 2018. Picture taken April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
Filipino workers demolish West Cove resort on Boracay island, in Philippines April 10, 2018. Picture taken April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
Filipino workers demolish West Cove resort on Boracay island, Philippines April 10, 2018. Picture taken April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A menu on a board is pictured outside a restaurant near uncollected sacks containing waste from clogged sewage pipes along the main road on Boracay island, Philippines April 10, 2018. Picture taken April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
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The closure is likely to affect the livelihoods of an estimated 30,000 people reliant on Boracay's 2 million annual visitors, but many residents feel Duterte's intervention was necessary.

"Local government officials have been so negligent. They don't know how to manage and protect this island," said a tour boat owner, Varril Santa, 51.

"It would be better if the national government can run this island. It's better for Boracay, it's better for our tomorrow."

A few remaining tourists posed for rare, crowd-free selfies in front of blue waters that have been for years cluttered with an armada of neon-sailed boats.

On Thursday, the boats had gone, replaced by a coastguard ship lingering on the horizon and small navy boats policing a 3-kilometer no-go zone. A day earlier, army helicopters ran regular sorties just meters above people playing in the sea.

A sewage system on the brink of collapse put Boracay on the government's radar two months ago. Further inspection revealed a catalog of environmental breaches across an island just 10-square-kilometers (4-square-miles) in size.

The interior ministry this week said it would seek charges against 10 unidentified officials for negligence.

'BORACAY WILL BE BACK'

The Philippine tourism minister, Wanda Teo, urged authorities and those opposed to the closure to put aside their grievances and work with the government.

"This is for the good of Boracay," she told the news channel ANC. "They have to help us because Boracay will be back to the way it was years ago."

The legality of the closure has been questioned by some critics and political opponents, who argue it is too drastic and say it denies citizens their right to free movement.

Duterte declared a state of calamity on the island and surrounding areas on Thursday, putting the environment, interior and tourism ministries in charge and freeing up funds to compensate those who have lost jobs.

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Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte
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Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (C) clenches fist with members of the Philippine Army during his visit at the army headquarters in Taguig city, metro Manila, Philippines October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers a speech to the members of the Philippine Army during a visit at the army headquarters in Taguig city, metro Manila, Philippines October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers a speech to the members of the Philippine Army during a visit at the army headquarters in Taguig city, metro Manila, Philippines October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte shows a brochure of the new Glock pistols to be issued to members of the Philippine Army during a visit at the army headquarters in Taguig city, metro Manila, Philippines October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a news conference in Davao city, southern Philippines August 21, 2016. REUTERS/Lean Daval Jr/File Photo
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (C) clenches fist with members of the Philippine Army during his visit at the army headquarters in Taguig city, metro Manila, Philippines October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while delivering a speech before female police officers during a gathering in Davao city, Philippines, September 30, 2016. Picture taken September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Lean Daval Jr TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte (L) speaks during his meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi, September 29, 2016. REUTERS/Hoang Dinh Nam/Pool
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte leaves the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos September 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
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The government wasted no time getting started on the rehabilitation.

Volunteers cleared seaweed and trash along the coast, while diggers, trucks and heavy-duty machinery were moved in across the island, slowing the departure of the last trickle of tourists.

Workers in orange vests and hard hats dug up pipes and smashed down walls with sledge hammers, part of efforts to widen a slender spine road and demolish illegal buildings that capitalized on decades of lax regulation.

Teddy Macabeo, a Filipino-American who runs a small hotel and spends six months a year in Boracay, said he was shocked how quiet the beach was during his morning stroll.

"It's the first time I've seen Boracay like this," said Macabeo, 76, from Seattle. But, he said, "if we don't take care of this now it will be totally destroyed."

"The ocean, the over-development, the waste - Boracay just can't handle it."

(Editing by Philip McClellan, Robert Birsel)

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