KOTA KINABALU- Ever heard about BIMP-EAGA? This obscure unglamorous acronym stands for Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines-East ASEAN Growth Area. The special economic growth region was created in 1994, covering originally the entire Borneo Island –which is divided between Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia- as well as the Mindanao region in the Philippines. Step by step, the growth area has been extended to cover other Indonesian Provinces such as Sulawesi and Maluku or Palawan in the Philippines. Regional governments have the ambitious goal to turn the entire area into a thriving economic and tourism centre. So far, progress has been limited for tourism. Three years ago, a new logo “Equator Asia” has been launched, which failed to make the public more aware of the tourism potential in the area; beside tours and common promotion between Brunei and the two Malaysian States of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo, cooperation is rather inexistent.
The biggest hurdle to BIMP-EAGA strengthening as a tourism destination is the lack of air connectivity. Until today, they are a few links from Royal Brunei linking Sabah and sporadically Sarawak to Bandar Sri Begawan; Batavia Air offers a direct connection from Pontianak to Kuching; and AirAsia has a daily frequency from Kota Kinabalu to Brunei. Malaysia Airlines regional subsidiary MASwings is due now to assume the role of a regional carrier. Last February MASwings started linking Kuching (Sarawak) to Pontianak (West Kalimantan) and Bandar Sri Begawan; from Kota Kinabalu (Sabah), the airline flies via Tawau to Tarakan (East Kalimantan) and to Bandar Sri Begawan. Success has been considerable, showing the relevance to develop intra-regional flights. Average occupancy for the new flights reached 65% in just a few months operations with some peak at 80%. From October, it will also start a new route linking Kuching to Balikpapan, the centre of the oil industry in East Kalimantan. Negotiations are also going on to allow the carrier to operate a direct service from Kota KInabalu to Puerto Princesa, the main gateway to Palawan Island (Philippines).
The integration of Cebu Mactan International Airport into the BIMP-EAGA is certainly an excellent idea as it is likely to give a boost to new links into the Philippines. Cebu is already an important tourist destination with many international flights linking Philippines’ largest resort to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore or Malaysia.
From now, the airport is included as one of the drop-off points for BIMP-EAGA air routes. Airlines will consequently be able to operate a route within EAGA with a stop-over in Cebu. It could help then to increase profitability on new routes such as Kota Kinabalu-Davao-Cebu or Balikpapan-Cebu- Davao. Other identified drop-off points listed also Solo in Indonesia (Central Java) and Johor Bahru in Southern Peninsular Malaysia. Integrating these new destinations in BIMP-EAGA air transport agreement could make some air links financially more sustainable.
“The expansion of air linkages with BIMP-EAGA partner countries is one of the strategies to foster economic activities in Mindanao and Palawan, as the transport of people and goods with our regional neighbours will become much easier,” explained earlier this year Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA) Chairman, Luwalhati Antonino to newspapers. MinDa serves as the Philippines Coordinating Office for BIMP-EAGA and has been a major catalyst into more air flexibility for the region.