Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines are looking at travel bubbles to restore air travel and tourism in BIMP-EAGA while efforts to improve airport facilities continue.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism was one of the growth sectors in the subregion with a high potential for providing sustainable livelihoods to communities in remote and less developed areas. BIMP-EAGA is promoted as a multi-country destination with a wide variety of attractions and activities, including world heritage sites, rainforests, sandy beaches, underwater diving and other aquatic sports, jungle trekking, and cultural and culinary tours. It is regarded as a premier destination for ecotourism in Asia and the Pacific.
Tourist arrivals have steadily increased over the years and were forecast to grow further. However, visitor tourist arrivals dropped by 76.0% in 2020, while tourism receipts fell by 79.1% to $6.2 billion from $29.7 billion in 2019. The pandemic restricted movement and halted cross-border travel, including regular commercial flights, as borders were closed to prevent the spread of the disease.
At the 24th BIMP-EAGA Ministerial Meeting on 11 October, the ministers committed to “support the essential steps to establish travel bubbles in the subregion.” They asked transport and tourism officials to work with the private sector in developing “cross-border mechanisms to implement travel bubbles that can help revive the transport and tourism industries, ensure health and safety protocols, and regain travelers’ confidence.”
In September, a joint meeting of the BIMP-EAGA Air Linkages Working Group and Joint Tourism Development Cluster discussed possible areas of collaboration. These include promoting standard travel and health protocols, such as guidelines on COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements; creating tourism bubbles that include selected destinations; supporting cleanliness, health, safety, and environment (CHSE) certifications for tourism establishments; developing controlled itinerary tour arrangements; and engaging the airline industry on plans to resume travel and tourism in the subregion. It was also suggested that the Reciprocal Green Lane between Brunei and Singapore could serve as a basis for travel bubble arrangements in BIMP-EAGA.
Also called a “green lane (or zone),” a travel bubble allows the flow of people between safe zones and does not require a 14-day quarantine. It covers areas with low or no recent COVID-19 cases. The creation of a travel bubble involves close cooperation between governments in partnership with the private sector.
BIMP-EAGA plans to revive the air travel routes before the pandemic, particularly in major cities, to support tourism activities.
In the meantime, the building of new airports and the improvement of airport facilities have continued despite the pandemic. These and other connectivity infrastructure projects are important to post-COVID-19 recovery in easing the movement of goods and passengers between countries.
To date, airport projects that were completed in 2020–2021 include Juwata International Airport (Tarakan) in Indonesia, Mukah Airport (Sarawak) in Malaysia, and General Santos Airport (Aerotropolis) and Zamboanga International Airport in the Philippines. More projects are expected to be completed by the end of the year. There are a total of 19 airport projects in the subregion, estimated to cost $2.3 billion.