INTERVIEW-Philippines vows beauty over building in tourism drive

MANILA, Jan 17 (Reuters) - The Philippines' drive to attract more tourists must be balanced against environmental concerns after sewage spills and flooding triggered a construction halt on its most famous beach resort, a senior official said on Thursday.

Lito Atienza, the environment secretary, ordered all building on Boracay, a tiny island south of Manila renowned for its powdery white sands, to stop for six months after rapid development overwhelmed facilities and threatened to destroy the island's pristine reputation.

Sewage was released into the sea and, with most beachfront areas already gobbled up, even the island's forests were being cut down to make way for more hotels.

"If we don't control development on Boracay island and in fact on all the other islands we may lose the very essence of attraction," said Atienza. "The uncontrolled development that has poured into the island has overloaded it.

Nearly 600,000 tourists visited Boracay last year, nearly four times the number of 10 years ago, and the Philippines has a goal of raising arrivals there by 10 percent each year.

Atienza said after July construction may be banned in some parts of the island, where a Shangri-La resort is being built, and authorities will be scrutinising building permits.

Last year was a record for Philippine tourism with over 3 million arrivals, many of them overseas Filipinos but also hundreds of thousands of Koreans, Americans and Japanese. Tourism expenditure was tagged at nearly $5 billion.

The Philippines wants to attract $5.8 billion in visitor spending this year and fierce competition over prized lots in Boracay resulted in a deadly shootout on the island this week. A former soldier was killed and a teenager wounded.

Long-time visitors to Boracay have complained about overcrowding but large numbers of people do not bother Atienza, a devout Catholic and the chairman of the Philippines' pro-life movement.

"It's not the number of people who destroy the environment, it's the abuse of some and the government allowing it," said the father of eight.

Environmentalists who argue that the Earth cannot cope with rapid population growth get short shrift from the 66 year old, who says illegal logging rather than human settlement is the main reason for landslides.

"They are telling them (poor people), don't have children any more because look at what happened, landslides happened because of your numbers. No, no, no it's not the number of the poor it's the super rich who have committed these landslides and calamities."

Activists were aghast when Atienza, formerly the mayor of Manila, was appointed environment chief last year. He was dubbed the "butcher of Arroceros" when he ordered the closure of Arroceros Park in Manila in 2003 to make way for new buildings.

Atienza said the trees were replanted elsewhere and insists that while his brief also includes promoting the mining sector his priority is always the environment.

"We have to always primarily consider the environment, the natural beauty of an area. All else will have to come in second."

Editing by Jeremy Laurence