Friday, August 21, 2009 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES [ BusinessWorld Online ]
BY DARWIN T. WEE, Correspondent
BONGAO, TAWI-TAWI — With the improvement of this town’s airport, government officials and business leaders said this southernmost island province would soon be transformed from "southern backdoor to southern gateway."
During the inauguration of the newly rehabilitated Sanga-Sanga (Bongao) airport last Monday, Governor Sadikul A. Sahali said the airport will rectify the reputation of the province from being a transit point for smuggling to having thriving tourism and marine export industries.
The airport’s runway has been upgraded and extended from 1,608 meters to 1,920 meters, and widened from 18 to 30 meters to accommodate bigger aircraft.
"We are happy to be part of the development of this island province," said United States Ambassador Kristie A. Kenney, who was the airport inauguration’s guest of honor.
The P200-million project was implemented by the Department of Transportation and Communications, the Civil Aviation Authority, the provincial government, and the US-funded Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM) Program.
Carlos Canda Tan, GEM’s deputy program manager for infrastructure, who helped in the conceptualization of the project, said the rehabilitation of the airport should improve the province’s air links with the rest of the country, and help strengthen the local economy.
The airport will also have new passenger terminal facilities that will be equipped with baggage conveyors and x-ray machines for efficient, effective, convenient and reliable aircraft operations.
Abdelnooh K. Hadjirul, president of the Tawi-Tawi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the airport upgrade will give Tawi-Tawi’s emerging aquaculture and eco-tourism industries a competitive advantage.
Mr. Sahali said major airlines such as Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines (PAL) are expected to service the province.
Currently, only South East Asian Airlines, Inc. is servicing Taw-Tawi with only one route — Zamboanga-Bongao. The aircraft currently in use has limited sitting capacity and has no space for commercial-scale cargo.
Selino S. Jalalon, PAL’s flight technical division manager, said in an interview that his office in the process of gathering legal documents and requirement for them to start regular flights here.
With Tawi-Tawi being rich in marine resources, PAL could deploy bigger passenger and cargo aircraft to help local growers of high-value commercial fishe to transport their products, he said. "We are looking at the same concept that we are providing to the tuna industry sector in General Santos City, where they use our aircrafts in transporting their products abroad."
Nazrullah G. Masahud, technical division chief of the autonomous Muslim region’s Trade department, said in a separate interview that major aircraft in the past have serviced Taw-Tawi, focusing mainly on transporting live high-value commercial fishes.
"It is very beneficial to us here, since our marine products could directly be sent Manila and other major points in the country," he said, adding transport of marine products was also a major point of interest when he spoke with Cebu Pacific officials just recently.
Governor Sahali said the opening of the new airport will encourage more tourists to visit the province, which is known for its fine white sand beaches and exotic marine animals.
He said Tawi-Tawi, which shares maritime borders with the Malaysian State of Sabah and the Indonesian Kalimantan province, has been one of those areas studied by local and foreign institutes focused on bio-diversity in the Sulu Archipelago. One of the famous research sites is Turtle Islands, where marine biologists are studying the nesting sites of green sea turtles. In 1996, the islands were declared a protected area by the government.
Several diving spots have also been identified in the province’s 307 islands and islets, with a combined land area of 462 square miles.