Hosting the ATF for the second time in Brunei Darussalam, gives an opportunity for over 800 delegates –including 400 buyers- to witness and enjoy what remains the least-known corner of ASEAN. Brunei, Southeast Asia last Malay Kingdom is located in Borneo- the world’s third largest Island- but is a rather tiny piece of it. The Sultanate occupies just 1% of Borneo total land area, the equivalent of 2,226 sq m. The population is also small by Borneo standards: less than 400,000 residents for a total Borneo population of 16 to 17 million…
However, to play the ATF host is the best opportunity to make the world travel community of the existence of Borneo but also of the special Growth Triangle Region, BIMP-EAGA. What sounds more like the name of an obscure medical or chemist association means indeed Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines, East Asia Growth Area. It covers East Malaysia with Sabah and Sarawak, Brunei, Kalimantan- Indonesia’s Borneo-as well as Sulawesi, Moluccas and Papua and in the Philippines the Mindanao and Palawan. “We recognize that the acronym does not mean anything for travelers”, acknowledges Peter Richter, BIMP-EAGA Principal Adviser in charge of the promotion of economic cooperation. Putting finally the area on the mind of tourists is getting first through a rebranding. “It was not such an easy exercise as we had to take into consideration that we deal with four countries. But we finally agreed on “Equator Asia”. It has the advantage to define geographically the area, to create fantasy and give an exotic appeal to the destination,” says Richter. The brand’s official launch was then attended by the Ministers of Tourism of the four countries, giving a symbolic value to the historical event for BIMP-EAGA.
‘Equator Asia’ will especially help to promote another Asia, more related to biodiversity and environment. “We are the Heart of Biodiversity for the World thanks to some of the best preserved rainforests on earth, which helped to maintain a unique flora and fauna. We will stress our promotion on those assets”, says Wee Hong Seng, Head of BIMP-EAGA Tourism Council. Many of the natural resources in the area are already listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the Mulu Caves in Sarawak, Mount Kinabalu Park in Sabah or Palawan’s Tubbataha Reef. Even Brunei is now looking to seek UNESCO World heritage status for its pristine rainforest in Temburong and for Kampung Ayer, one of the last water village preserved in Borneo. And Equator Asia is also well known to offer some of the most spectacular underwater paradises with the world’s largest tropical coral reef.
However, the new brand will have to overcome many existing obstacles. “We first had to convince the four participating countries of the importance to be truly committed to the new brand and put their differences aside to speak from one single voice”, tells Wee. Discordance between countries with each member pushing its own agenda probably explains BIMP-EAGA failure to get better recognition.
Same can be said about air access. “It is true that before, everyone was tending to push its national airline and its national airport. Today, our four countries look to enter into a new cooperation framework to improve connections, which are crucial to improve access to the area”, adds Wee. Aberration such as no air links between Northern Borneo (Malaysia and Brunei) and Kalimantan or between Davao and Malaysia should be next resolved. “Developing flights is a matter of interest from airlines. We can just help them to identify the most potential routes”, says the Head of BIMP-EAGA Tourism Council. ‘Equatorial Asia’ supports currently plans from MASwings, Malaysia Airlines subsidiary in Sabah and Sarawak to expand regionally. MASwings currently mulls the idea to start linking both Kuching and Kota Kinabalu to Pontianak and Balikpapan in Indonesia, Davao and Zamboanga in the Philippines as well as Brunei.
The council hopes also that Royal Brunei could also build up a proper international hub offering connections between all important cities in the area and the rest of the world. RBA should soon expand to India and Shanghai but has still no plans to serve more regional destinations in the area.
Finally, demand will come from a bigger presence on international markets. ‘Equator Asia’ works on a website with its content being currently elaborated with the help of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Cooperation and Development under the address equator-asia.com. “But another important issue is to look for a proper representative office as there isn’t a proper authority to promote ‘Equator Asia’. An institution would then greatly contribute to impose our new brand”, says Richter.