Many believe that the island of Boracay was a well-kept secret until the 1970s when travellers accidentally stumbled onto it. But other accounts say that the island’s debut as a potential holiday destination was made through a movie, and before then it was just one of the many beautiful islands of the Visayas region in the Philippines.
Boracay doesn’t share the same turbulent history of other areas of the the Philippines, such as Manila, as it was off the colonisers’ radar and was simply a sparsely populated, tropical island before the tourist crowds arrived.
How the name Boracay originated is unclear. In one version, it is said that Boracay comes from the word borac (meaning cotton), as the sand of the island’s beaches is similar in texture and colour to that of pure cotton. Another version states that the name is derived from bora (bubbles) and bocay (white), because the Ati elders thought the white sand resembled water bubbles.
An alternative version states that the origin of the name started out at the arrival of the Spanish to the islands when they were thieving shells. When they met with the Atis, the Spanish were informed that the shells were called sigay and that boray was a vegetable seed that the natives planted. Boray and Sigay could have been combined to form Boracay.
Boracay Island is part of the province of Panay and its original settlers were called Atis or Negritos. Back then, Boracay was a fishing village that was also known for its coconut plantations and was where native settlers thrived for centuries. During the 1940s and 1950s, the people of Boracay were referred to as Boracaynons, and they remained dependent on the industry of fishing and coconut farming. Entrepreneurs from Aklan eventually visited Boracay and traded copra, a by-product of coconuts, in exchange for other goods.
The first tourists who came to Boracay were mostly vacationing families from the neighbouring island of Panay. It was a popular destination, not just because of its proximity, but also because staying there and experiencing its white sand beaches was more affordable than it is nowadays.
Others say it was an author who placed Boracay in the map of every traveller. In 1978, a German writer came out with a book about the Philippine Islands with a detailed description and history of Boracay. Many believed that this was how the world came to know Panay’s best kept secret.
From then on, foreigners visited the Philippines to spend summer holidays in Boracay. The tropical island was given a makeover and it transformed from a sleepy, sparsely populated area to an up-and-coming tourist destination. The first guests of the island after it was introduced to the world were backpackers.
These were people who visited the island after taking a tour of other areas in the Visayas region. At that time, the available types of accommodation consisted only of simple bamboo huts with mattresses on the floor. Even before the 1990s, the town’s utilities were limited, consisting only candles and kerosene lamps to provide lighting to the island and its visitors.
Later on, the Tirol family that owned a greater part of the island’s beachfront started developing the area, creating modern resorts and hotels for tourists. The Tirol Museum houses a number of artefacts on the history of Boracay for all visitors to view. Also inside the museum are excavated antiquities like Chinese and Philippine ceramics that were discovered throughout the island.
Boracay’s first visitors were mainly Swiss and German tourists, and the Swiss even jokingly called Boracay a ‘Canton of Switzerland’. Eventually, more European visitors from Belgium, Britain, Bavaria, Spain, Portugal, and Austria arrived on the island, which contributed to the multicultural facets of Boracay’s culinary choices. Even Chinese, Thai, and some Filipinos settled here, contributing to the island’s further development in terms of accommodation, activities, and eating. Nowadays, Boracay is not a private and unspoilt paradise any more, but a major tourist and holiday destination for the Philippines.