A string of airlines has come and gone in trying to link the Philippines with Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. Two new lionhearts are AirAsia and Cebu Pacific. Can they make it and usher in peace and prosperity to Mindanao?
Mindanao’s isolation may soon be a thing of the past, giving hope for tourism –and peace – to bloom in this bountiful yet troubled land in southern Philippines.
From just a single ASEAN route (Davao-Singapore via SilkAir), Mindanao will have two more: in October with Cebu Pacific’s Zamboanga City-Sandakan and in December with Air Asia’s Davao-Kuala Lumpur, a starting point for connecting Davao to the rest of the East Asia Growth Area of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines (BIMP EAGA).
Much hope is pinned on these air routes to Mindanao, which while being one of the country’s loveliest and unspoiled destinations, has been suffering from limited access, bad image, and poverty – a major contributor to insurgency and unrest in certain areas.
The routes gain more significance as their launch is amid the ongoing war between government forces and militants in the Islamic City of Marawi that caused the declaration of martial law over the entire Mindanao in May.
But will these air services be sustainable given that past efforts floundered due to thin traffic?
Among airlines that have quit the EAGA routes are Mindanao Express (Zamboanga-Sabah), Philippine Airlines (PAL) with its Cebu-Bandar Seri Begawan, Cebu-Kota Kinabalu and Zamboanga-Lauban routes, and South East Asia Airlines (Seair) with its Manila-Puerto Princesa-Kota Kinabalu.
Someone has to try it again
Perhaps AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes can make it happen. A risk-taker, he foresees that opening new routes in underserved areas with low fares would create the demand, including in Mindanao which has a huge population. After all, Fernandes has opened new routes nobody dreamed of doing – to Macau, Bandung, Langkawi and, in the Philippines, Clark and Kalibo.
AirAsia Philippines president and CEO Dexter Comendador said that with the Philippine government’s emphasis on improving infrastructure in Mindanao, the Davao-Kuala Lumpur flight is a start, and there are plans to pioneer more routes from Davao to Miri, Kota Kinabalu, Brunei and other EAGA and non-EAGA destinations.
Indeed, there is a market waiting to be tapped. Several areas in Mindanao have enjoyed centuries of economic and cultural ties with EAGA regions, their shared heritage resulting in strong trade relations and family ties. But the main mode of transport remains by sea.
As Cebu Pacific director of corporate communications, Charo Lagamon, said: “Today, hundreds of passengers brave a 14-hour boat ride between Zamboanga and Sandakan. That indicates that there is a market for a 40-minute plane ride.”
What AirAsia asked for
Laying down the groundwork for flights from Mindanao, Fernandes sent a position paper to the Philippine government requesting for concessions in airports that are not yet fully developed. This includes waiving the passenger departure tax of P1,620 (a little over US$3) and airport fees such as landing and takeoff charges and aeronautical charges for a period of five years until the passenger traffic is developed.
The paper pointed out that what the Philippine government will lose in waived fees would be more than compensated for by huge increases in passenger traffic, which will in turn attract hotels and other tourism investments.
Departure fees are many times more expensive than the air fares, a disincentive to travellers, it said.
AirAsia’s Comendador said: “Davao is amenable to the proposal. This is big deal for developing regional routes from Davao, as it will result in lower fares.”
He said Malaysia does not charge airport fees.
Aviation veteran Avelino Zapanta, who used to helm PAL and Seair and is now a professor at WCC Aeronautical and Technological College in Pangasinan, concurred that granting the airlines highly discounted charges, if not free, will “help them survive in their pioneering effort”.
“The Malaysian airport authorities are much more liberal in this. They automatically give these benefits to new entrants in the EAGA routes. Our authorities should be equally supportive,” he said.
Opening the EAGA corridors from Mindanao will also require the strengthening of immigration. Airlines will have to do their part in profiling their passengers which Air Asia is doing in Malaysia, said Comendador, cum laude graduate of the Philippine Military Academy and for years a pilot and strategist of combat missions as member of the Philippine Air Force’s elite Strike Wing.
“In Malaysia, we have a direct access with Interpol and we are trying to adopt that in the Philippines,” he said.
Comendador also pointed out that as part of its CSR, Air Asia through Air Asia Foundation has teamed up with US-based Airline Ambassadors International to train all its frontline staff and cabin crew, including those in the Philippines, to fight human trafficking.
What comes first?
What comes first: Tourism creates peace, or peace creates tourism?
Much rests on the success of the flights to prove that the former can come first.
Zapanta said: “The industry will owe Cebu Pacific and Air Asia much if they get to develop the traffic on the routes.”
He said as traffic and flight frequencies increase, the benefits to the communities involved will be great and should help bring about peace and order as more jobs are created.
Agreeing, Dottie Cronin, who hails from Mindanao and is general manager of Marco Polo Hotel Davao – the only foreign-brand in Mindanao for a long time – said pioneering air routes will open up other destinations in Mindanao and beef up tourism development.
Proving that tourism helps pump the economy, Cebu Pacific’s Lagamon pointed out how it created opportunities and positive socio-economic change in Siargao and Camiguin, two of the most popular destinations in Mindanao.
Butch Blanco, tourism director of Region IX in western Mindanao including Zamboanga, believes peace comes before tourism. However there are instances when tourism is honed even before peace settles in.
For instance, Blanco shared that the region will embark on a community-based tourism project next year, either in Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur or Zamboanga Sibugay, that will encourage former insurgents to join so they can realise what benefits tourism can bring.
“We can be a tourism template (of how to develop a certain area that has issues with insurgency and poverty, into a tourism draw),” he said.
The road to peace, progress and prosperity is long and necessitates participation from all stakeholders, be they the public and private sectors and local residents.
But connecting Mindanao to its Asian neighbours now is a good start in making tourism a creator of peace.