GENERAL LUNA – Owners of resorts and bars on an island in the Philippines popular with surfers and tourists alike expected a bumper Christmas vacation after the restrictions on Covid-19 were eased. Then Super Typhoon Rai wiped them out.
The strongest storm to hit the archipelago this year swept through Siargao, a tropical paradise known for its sandy beaches, big waves and relaxed atmosphere.
With winds of 195 kilometers (120 miles) per hour when he made landfall on the island last Thursday (December 16), Rai uprooted palm trees, shredded thatched roofs, smashed wooden buildings and toppled over electric poles.
Widespread destruction has left the island – voted the best in Asia by Conde Nast Traveler readers this year – unrecognizable.
“The day after the storm, we went out and said to each other ‘wow, it’s Siargao now, it’s not anymore’,” Claudine Mendoza, 27, deputy head in a newspaper, told AFP. seaside resort by the sea.
“Even Cloud Nine is gone, he was really devastated,” Ms. Mendoza said, referring to the island’s surf spot where a boardwalk – a favorite selfie spot for tourists – was washed away by the typhoon.
The storm is a big blow to tour operators, hitting them a week before the Christmas holidays, as many Filipino families typically head to the country’s famous beaches and dive sites.
Pandemic travel restrictions have decimated the number of visitors to the island in the past two years, leaving many resorts, cafes, souvenir shops and tour guides struggling to survive.
But domestic tourism has started to pick up in recent months as the government relaxed rules to boost economic activity – though it maintained the ban on foreign travelers entering the country.
“Everyone was so happy, the island was bustling again,” Ms. Mendoza said. “Then suddenly the storm came. “
Today’s business owners face costly repairs or have to start from scratch, and their employees have uncertain futures.
Some wonder if it’s worth trying to start over.
“This typhoon is much worse for us than the pandemic – the pandemic has not caused any (structural) damage,” said resort owner Anton Alvarez.
“We think we have the capacity to rebuild, but there’s no point in rebuilding if it’s just us – we need all of Siargao to rebuild.”
‘WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN NOW?’
With electricity cut across the island, there is no signal or internet, hampering efforts by relief agencies to assess the extent of death and destruction caused by the storm.
At least 375 people have been killed on the Rai-affected islands, national police reported, including 167 in the region that includes Siargao.
Farmers and fishermen have also seen their livelihoods destroyed and thousands of families have been left homeless.
Ms. Elka Requinta, marketing coordinator at Siargao, said the force of the typhoon surprised everyone.
“We didn’t expect it to be that bad,” said Ms Requinta, 36.
“You have residents who have been affected because I don’t think there was a call for the government to evacuate.”
It could take months for electricity to be fully restored to the island, making it difficult for business owners to discuss the future with their partners and investors.
Mr Alvarez said he would like to reopen his resort within 12 months, but admitted it was “quite optimistic”.
“What’s going to happen now?” Ms. Mendoza asked.
“We do not know.” AFP