Direct flights and new infrastructure projects move Tawi-Tawi closer to becoming an important gateway for Muslim Mindanao to other parts of BIMP-EAGA.
Along with Sulu and Basilan, Tawi-Tawi is part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and strategically located near Borneo and other areas of the East ASEAN Growth Area. The three BARMM provinces have a long history of trade with their BIMP-EAGA neighbors.
BARMM was created in 2019 as part of a peace agreement to end nearly 5 decades of conflict between the government and secessionists. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, BARMM’s economy expanded by 7.5% in 2021, the second-fastest growth among all regions in the country.
Improved transport connectivity
Philippines Airlines started direct flights between Cotabato City and Tawi-Tawi on 9 June. The airline is the first to operate regular air travel services within BARMM. The twice weekly flights save travelers several hours. Previously, they had to fly via Manila or another gateway outside of BARMM, which sometimes even entailed an overnight stop.
Two bridges are being constructed to connect Bongao, the provincial capital, to neighboring island municipalities, which will cut travel time and bring economic benefits and opportunities. The Asian Development Bank is supporting the bridge construction under the $380-million Improving Growth Corridors in Mindanao Road Sector Project.
There is also a plan to develop an agricultural economic zone in Tawi-Tawi, one of four in BARMM that will tap growing opportunities in the domestic and BIMP-EAGA halal markets. The development of these agro-ecozones will be accompanied by improvements in transport connectivity (e.g., fast craft, roll-on/roll-off services) and logistic systems. It will promote the integration of rural suppliers in the supply chain.
Untapped economic and tourism potential
Located in the Sulu Archipelago, Tawi-Tawi is the southernmost province of the Philippines and located in one of the least developed regions in the country. Improving access to this resource-rich province will unlock its economic and tourism potential.
Bangsamoro Chief Minister Ahod Ebrahim hailed the regular flights between Cotabato City and Tawi-Tawi as a historic event that opens the doors to trade and business opportunities for the province and the region. It will make it easier for more people to experience the beauty of Tawi-Tawi’s islands.
The cluster of islands that make up the province is a key biodiversity area of international significance. The waters surrounding Tawi-Tawi are part of the Coral Triangle and are rich in marine biodiversity. Six of its islands comprise the Turtle Islands sanctuary, a major nesting ground for the endangered green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) in Southeast Asia. Bud Bongao or Bongao Peak is one of the 12 key biodiversity sites in the country. At about 340 meters above sea level, it is the highest point in the province. The Bongao Peak Eco-Tourism Park is home to rare white monkeys, wild boars, and other wild animals.
Other tourist attractions in the province are the Panampangan Island, said to be the longest sandbar in the country at 3 kilometers; Sangay Siapuh Island, considered as the little Maldives of the south; and the Sheik Karimul Makhdum Mosque, which was built in 1380, making it the oldest mosque in the Philippines.
Fishing and seaweed farming are the main sources of livelihood in the province. It is the largest seaweed producer in the country.
The Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA) is supporting several initiatives to help seaweed farmers become climate-resilient and more productive. The Renewable Energy Technology to Increase Value-Added of Seaweeds in Tawi-Tawi (RETS) Project under the European Union’s Access to Sustainable Energy Program is helping strengthen the economic and climate resilience of seaweed farming communities by building solar hybrid energy systems on the island municipalities of Sibutu and Sitangkai.
The Seaweed Research and Development Center at Mindanao State University Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceanography is producing a new strain of disease-resistant and climate-resilient seaweeds, and it is counting on MinDA’s help in setting up seaweed processing plants and storage facilities. Establishing industry-based shared facilities is part of MinDa’s Mindanao Development Agenda to ensure the productivity and resilience of the agriculture and fisheries sectors.
Barter trade in BASULTA-EAGA
MinDA, the Philippines’ coordinating office for BIMP-EAGA, is also working with BARMM’s Ministry of Trade, Investments and Tourism to finalize the implementing the rules and regulations for a formalized barter trading system, which is expected to further boost economic activities in Tawi-Tawi and the region.
In 2018, then Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte issued Executive Order No. 64 that created the Mindanao Barter Council and identified the ports of Siasi and Jolo in Sulu and Bongao in Tawi-Tawi as the barter ports.
The Greater Sulu–Sulawesi maritime corridor is the nerve center of barter trade in BIMP-EAGA, particularly in agriculture and aquaculture products. The corridor covers four routes: Palawan–Sabah, Zamboanga Peninsula–Sabah, Davao (Davao del Sur), and General Santos–North Sulawesi. The Zamboanga Peninsula–Sabah route includes Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, collectively known as BASULTA.
A 2020 study shows that barter trade persisted between Mindanao and Borneo despite movement restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19. It notes that the BASULTA area is highly dependent on the informal shipment of goods from Sabah, including Malaysian noodles, instant coffee, and black-market cigarettes. With the recent oil price hikes, barter traders in Mindanao are also cashing in on cheaper fuel sourced from Sandakan district in Sabah.