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Philippines closing Boracay to tourists under high security

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The Philippines is to shutter its most famous holiday island Boracay to tourists later Thursday for a six-month clean-up, which the government has imposed with a muscular show of its security forces.

[BORACAY] The Philippines is to shutter its most famous holiday island Boracay to tourists later Thursday for a six-month clean-up, which the government has imposed with a muscular show of its security forces.

Assault-rifle wielding police were posted at entry points to the once-pristine island that has become tainted by heavy commercialisation and construction.

About 600 policemen were deployed, with some performing life-like drills including riot officers battling bottle-hurling protesters and mock hostage taking of sunbathers - all before startled locals.

"It looks like we are at war," Jessica Gabay, a grocery seller, told AFP late Wednesday. "Maybe the authorities are doing this to instill fear so people will follow the rules."

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President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the shutdown last month after calling the resort a "cesspool", dirtied by tourism-related businesses dumping raw sewage directly into the ocean.

During the closure only residents with ID cards will be allowed to board ferries to the tiny island that is home to about some 40,000 people.

The government said it was aiming to squelch any unrest from those unhappy with the shutdown, including some of the roughly 30,000 people employed in the island's bustling tourist trade.

Resistance has been light in the run-up to the closure, with no violent protests and most of the criticism focusing on the plight of laid-off workers.

They have been drawn by the relatively good wages on the island that has seen the number of visitors roughly quadruple to two million since 2006.

YEARS OF UNCHECKED GROWTH

Those tourists, a growing number of whom are Chinese and Korean, pumped roughly US$1 billion in revenue into the Philippine economy last year.

But its growth from a sleepy backpacker hideaway into a mass-tourism hub with fast food outlets on the beach has taken a toll.

Unchecked construction has eaten away at the island's natural beauty, slimy algae-filled waves in some areas and mountains of discarded drink bottles are problems acknowledged even by critics of the shutdown.

"I'm all for rehabilitation and preserving it but clearly this is not the way to do it," Philippine politics expert Ashley Acedillo told AFP.

He called the closure an "ill-thought through, unplanned and knee-jerk action" that did not take into account the economic impact on the island's workers and business community.

The Philippines has pledged to use the closure to shore up the island's infrastructure, bulldoze illegal structures and clean up the mess left by years of unchecked growth.

For its part, the government has billed it as a long-overdue response to a problem that is not without precedent.

Other Southeast Asian tourism destinations have also cracked down on the what has been for years uncontrolled tourism welcomed by locals needing income and authorities eager for development.

Thailand's Maya Bay, made famous by the 2000 movie "The Beach" starring Leonardo DiCaprio, will be off limits for four months from June to September, officials announced last month, in a bid to save its ravaged coral reefs.

AFP