“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
— Leonardo da Vinci (Italian polymath, 1452 — 1519)
While I have been to many ASEAN countries, it was only recently that I have visited some South Asian countries like India (Mumbai only), Nepal, and Bhutan, all related to attending the Asia Liberty Forum (ALF) or the Economic Freedom Network (EFN) Asia conferences.
The big cities in our ASEAN neighbors are modern and developed, starting from their big and modern international airports. Flying from Manila is also easy because of (a.) the short distance, maximum four hours direct flight; (b.) lower fares due to many competing airlines; and, (c.) visa-free entry for ASEAN visits of less than 30 days.
The South Asians have a different environment. Bhutan and Nepal are very cold as they are up in the high Himalayan mountains — Mt. Everest can be seen from a distance when flying to Paro or Kathmandu. There are also no direct flights from Manila so the cost of travel is high, and there is a visa fee to pay.
All of my past trips to attend ALF and/or EFN conferences were sponsored by EFN Asia and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), except for the Nepal trip in 2015 where I was sponsored by Media 9 and Business 360 magazine, where I was a contributor for free market topics.
I will attend the ALF 2019 in another South Asian country, Sri Lanka, from Feb. 28 to March 1. One thing that is weird going there is that almost all airlines from East Asia — Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea, etc. — arrive in Colombo airport in the late evening to early morning. Only the Sri Lankan airline flying from these countries arrives in Colombo at day time. For me this is indirect local airline protectionism.
I checked the tourism numbers — South Asia is not exactly a favorite destination for many international visitors, unlike many ASEAN countries. India, with its population of 1.3 billion, attracted only 15.5 million foreign visitors in 2017, nearly comparable with Singapore’s (population 5.7 million) 13.9 million visitors (See Table 1). I did not include in the list countries with very small numbers of foreign visitors in 2017 like Brunei (0.26 M), Bhutan (also 0.26 M) and Nepal (0.94 M).
Next, I wanted to know how many of those international visitors in the Philippines and its neighbors are from the ASEAN. The numbers are a bit surprising — less than half a million of the Philippine’s international visitors are from our neighbors in the ASEAN. We are not attractive to our neighbors, like Myanmar (See Table 2).
Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia are attractive to their neighbors — partly because one can travel from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur by car or bus in five hours or less, with no need to fly; and partly because Malaysia has huge competing airlines that cater to all visitors, from the rich to poor travellers seeking budget airlines and landing in budget airport terminals.
Thus, the Malaysia experience can be a model for the Philippines in attracting more foreign travelers. Indonesia too — it is expanding its airports to be bigger, more modern. I saw the new Soekarno Hatta Airport last year when I attended ALF 2018 in Jakarta and I was surprised by its modernity. The airport’s passenger traffic rose from 57.8 million in 2012 to 65.7 million in 2018.
More big domestic airlines, more regional airline competition, more budget terminals alongside main terminals to attract more budget airlines local and foreign — we need them. The freedom to fly for more Filipinos and more foreigners seeing the Philippines should increase.
Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is the president of Minimal Government Thinkers.