Institutional, governance problems
According to the MinDA website, the DGB, as one of three pilot areas for the ASEAN RORO Network Initiative, was initially pushed in 2012 by the private sectors in the three cities.
Policy restrictions in Indonesia like Bitung Port’s status, however, hampered the launch. In 2014, the Indonesian Ministry of Trade officially identified Bitung Port as an international port, allowing entry of food and beverages, electronics and garments.
Montenegro told MindaNews the problem has been addressed by greater private and public sector coordination.
Under the ASEAN Single Aviation Market, BIMP-EAGA is pushing for the revival of air connectivity within its focus areas to increase not only tourism arrivals but also trade activity within and beyond the sub-region.
Various airlines have previously serviced the route such as Bouraq Airlines (2002), Merpati Nusantara (2005) and Sriwijaya airlines (2006), which have ceased operations due in part to the companies’ financial and operational losses, according to the MinDA website.
There were on and off availability of chartered flights after the suspension of regular flights.
Two of the players included Mid Sea Express, an Indonesian air carrier and Wings Air, a subsidiary of the Indonesian carrier’s Lion Air.
In his April 2016 dissertation titled “Trade Governance Model in the BIMP EAGA,” Soehardi, an Indonesian doctorate student at the University of Southeastern Philippines in Davao City, found that connectivity management in transport infrastructure is an important consideration among traders.
“The current condition of BIMP EAGA trade governance is marred with institutional and governance problems,” he wrote in his conclusion.
He added that it created difficulties and cumbersome engagements with small and medium traders in BIMP-EAGA corridors.
He identified six attributes with “availability of ships/planes as the major indicator.” The others include sufficient cargo ships and airplanes to ferry goods from one country to another and that a sufficiently equipped port of entry as a good indicator of trade governance.
No connectivity, no tourists
Retired government employee Virna Gomez of Davao City said that as a traveler she looks for destinations that do not only have commercial appeal.
“There are also those who look for historical and cultural purposes. This is the kind that we can see in Indonesia, for example,” she said.
For her, the idea of connecting Davao and General Santos to Bitung is welcome news, especially for cargo shipping. She said it would open up opportunities for local people to trade in the sub-region. She would also be interested to explore the tourist attractions there. She, however, hoped that a comfortable passenger shipping service should be offered side by side with the cargo ships.
“It would be an entirely different set of expectations from passengers,” she added.
But she said the prospects of local tourists like her to go to Indonesia will not depend only on the availability of flights or shipping services.
“We will be encouraged to travel if there are budget fares available such as the promotional peso-fare package (offered by a Philippine airline), she said.
She said that for tourists it all redounds to affordability of travel cost and availability of hotels that cater to backpackers.
“We must also have more of those hotels so that we also draw tourists from Indonesia to our shores,” she added.
Unlike archipelagic Indonesia, she said, Malaysia seems to be a more attractive destination because you can take a bus or a train in going from one destination to another.
“But I like to go to Bali and Yogyakarta, given the chance,” she said.
Gomez, who in 2010 set up a small travel agency to keep herself busy, said she rarely get bookings for travel to Indonesia or Malaysia.
’Get acts together’
Businesswoman Mary Ann Montemayor said this should not be a cause for discouragement.
She said the nature of BIMP EAGA is really “going slow” and small, not grand, so hard work is needed to push ahead.
But Montemayor, who sat at the BIMP EAGA Tourism Council from 1998 to 2008, said private and public sectors should get their acts together.
“By all means, the impasse should be broken. It’s impossible to do trading without connectivity,” she added.
Any aggressive marketing, she said, could help tourism and trade but it should be backed by physical connectivity.
Assistance has been extended to micro, small and medium enterprises to help them compete in the ASEAN market. But Montemayor said connectivity will their chances.
She said the ease of travel due to the Davao-Manado flights enabled business to pick up, although not as fast as expected.
“When it happened, the flights were already suspended,” she said.
She argued that it’s not entirely for the lack of attractions but that other destinations just had the edge in the competition.
“The challenge is how to build up the market and prove to the airlines that it’s worth the risk,” she said in the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting in Davao last month.
Joanna Ruth Paloma, an English teacher at Bukidnon State University, recalled fond memories of her visit Manado in June 2012. She was then a member of a 40-person delegation of the university chorale who performed there for the Philippine Independence Day celebration organized by the Philippine Consulate.
The group flew with Wings Air, an Indonesian airline serving the route with a 70-seater aircraft.
Joanna said they traveled to another city and country but felt like she was home. “I felt like we were closely related in culture and language (separated only by the seas).”
Indonesian food, she added, is familiar although a lot spicier. The style of the houses and buildings was also similar. In 2012, she compared Manado to Cagayan de Oro City. She said Manado folks were hospitable and were fond of Philippine tourists.
She was saddened that there are no more regular flights serving the route.
“I hope it will be revived. It’s good to connect with our neighbors. There were differences but there must be more similarities. It’s worth exploring,” she added. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)