With BIMP-EAGA focused on reviving trade and tourism after the pandemic, the subregion has recently seen the resumption of air and sea links, with both governments and the private sector striving to restore connectivity between member countries.
At the 9th BIMP-EAGA Transport Cluster Meeting held on 1–2 September in Jakarta, officials discussed reviving BIMP-EAGA’s air routes and the streamlining of maritime policies and standards.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo recently urged the revival of the shipping route between Bitung and Davao and the reopening of the Manado–Davao air link during the state visit of Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. “I invite the Philippines to continue developing trade potentials as well as connectivity in border areas,” said Widodo, according to a report by the Philippine News Agency.
A press conference of AirAsia Philippines and the Sabah Tourism Board in July discussed plans of establishing direct flights between Kota Kinabalu and Puerto Princesa in Palawan and Davao in Mindanao. The carrier is also looking to service Zamboanga in Mindanao and create a Sandakan hub in Sabah.
Sabah Tourism, Culture, and Environment Minister Datuk Jafry Ariffin welcomed the carrier’s plan as it would help create spillover economic benefits for both Malaysia and the Philippines.
Given the planned upgrade of Sandakan Airport into an international airport, he said there is a need to explore additional direct routes into the state. Sandakan is the second largest city in Sabah. “Tawau, being a gateway to Semporna, might potentially serve as an operational hub too. So, whether it’s Sandakan or Tawau, we’ll let them study the viability,” he said.
Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines set up BIMP-EAGA to spur development in remote and less developed areas, which are strategically close to each other. As such, connectivity is one of the subregion's development pillars.
Supporting post-pandemic recovery
During a recent meeting to review BIMP-EAGA’s medium-term goals, Carl Moosom, chairman of the BIMP-EAGA Business Council (BEBC) Sabah, stressed the need to revive connectivity, particularly sea links, noting it is vital to the subregion’s post-pandemic recovery. BEBC represents the private sector in BIMP-EAGA.
He noted the need to review existing BIMP-EAGA deals promoting connectivity in the subregion to improve cooperation to support economic recovery.
Latest statistics shows the subregion’s economy contracted by 3.3% in 2020. Before the pandemic, it posted a 6.9% growth in gross domestic product.
As member countries continue to revive their economies, tourism’s recovery is among their priorities. Tourism was the hardest-hit sector during the pandemic. Visitor arrivals fell 65.40% to 50.4 million in 2020 from 145.5 million the previous year. Domestic tourism is the main contributor to tourism in the subregion, accounting for around 98% of visitor arrivals in 2020.
Efforts to restore connectivity are bearing fruit and more initiatives are being pushed, not just within the subregion but also to destinations outside the four member countries.
Sabah now benefits from daily flights from Singapore, served by AirAsia, Scoot, and Malaysia Airlines. Jin Air, Jeju Air, Air Busan fly between Sabah and Incheon. Royal Brunei Airlines flies four times a week to Sabah, while AirAsia flies three times a week to Bangkok, and twice a week to the Philippines.
Royal Brunei Airlines has also resumed flights from Bandar Seri Begawan to Kuching in Sarawak starting 1 May.
Sea links are also being restored. For example, Aleson Shipping Lines, Inc. recently announced it had opened a Zamboanga–Sandakan service. Aleson also serves other destinations in Mindanao, including Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, and Jolo, as well as Luzon and Visayas.
Before the pandemic, AirAsia, Garuda Airlines, Philippine Airlines, Royal Brunei Airlines, and Wings Air offered direct flights within the subregion. Wings Air serviced the Pontianak and Kuching route. Royal Brunei Airlines offered flights between Bandar Seri Begawan and Kuching, Sandakan, Bintulu, Tawau, and Sibu, all in Malaysia, and Balikpapan in Indonesia. Garuda Airlines offered flights between Manado and Davao. Philippine Airlines was about to start a service between Zamboanga and Kota Kinabalu in March 2020 but was forced to shelve the plans because of the pandemic.