The consul-general of the Philippine consulate in Manado, Indonesia said language has remained a major challenge to the four-country sub-regional grouping that is home to at least 55 million people from different cultures and languages.
Consul-general Olivia Palala said there is still a lot of effort to be done for stakeholders in EAGA to be more conscious about other peoples' language.
She said there is a wealth of information about EAGA's initiatives and opportunities that are not translated to the local languages.
"It has become a major blunder that could be one of the reasons why several initiatives to improve tourism in the region has flopped," Palala told MindaNews.
Palala told a press conference Thursday at the sidelines of the 15th Senior Officials Meeting of the BIMP EAGA that language was one reason why flights between Manado and Davao in the past flopped.
She said Indonesian airlines Bouraq and Merpati had problems drawing passengers from Manado to Davao because most of the tourist packages and presentations were prepared in English.
"There was no problem with passengers from Mindanao to Manado, but from Manado to Mindanao it was a big problem," she said. She said only one passenger from Manado flies to Davao for every three passengers flying from Davao to Manado.
She said there were reports Air SriVijaya might fold up its Manado – Davao flights too if the situation does not improve.
Palala said they were able to trace the problem partly to communication lapses. She said most tourist packages offered by operators from Mindanao were written in English, which is still not very widely used in Manado and neighboring areas in the EAGA.
She said people in North Sulawesi are predominantly Bahasa Indonesia speakers.
To turn around the language barrier is crucial in the success of EAGA as tourism had been identified as an entry point for economic cooperation in the region.
The BIMP-EAGA, created in 1994, includes Brunei Darussalam, East Indonesia (the provinces of North Sulawesi, East Kalimantan, West Kalimantan, Maluku, Irian Jaya, South and Central Kalimantan, Southeast and Central Sulawesi, Southeast and South Sulawesi), East Malaysia (Sabah, Sarawak, and Labuan), and the Philippines’ Mindanao and Palawan.
From tourism, she said, there are other domino effects that could eventually help EAGA’s much needed growth
Palala said her experience on the ground in monitoring relations between Davao and Manado showed how important it would be to consider the language differences.
She said Mindanawon tour operators and businessmen should appeal to the culture of the market there through the use of their language.
She said if they feel home when they visit another EAGA area, the EAGA visitors to Mindanao should feel the same, too.
Palala said if Davao looks at that market it should also have tourist-friendly signs in Bahasa to make these tourists feel home.
The consul denied that the problem of language is minor in the relationships and growth in BIMP EAGA. She said using English as commonly used in Mindanao does not necessarily apply to other EAGA members.
"It isolates them from the potential market here," she told MindaNews.
She also cited a slight problem in the sending of invitations to local government leaders in the Indonesian areas of the EAGA to the 2nd BIMP EAGA Chief Ministers, Governors, and Heads of Local Government Forum.
The letters were written in English, Palala said, which initially did not get the interest of the local leaders.
She said there could have been more confirmations if the letters were in Bahasa.
Cecil Triño, media liaison officer of the local government forum told MindaNews they sent another invitation in Bahasa but admitted it came way too soon before the event.
Trade Assistant Secretary Merlyn Cruz, Philippine Senior Official to the BIMP EAGA, told the press conference awareness among the residents of EAGA is also a factor.
"Awareness of the existence of EAGA and its potentials could bring in positive response," she said.
She admitted that group could not push through with cooperation just by relying on internal trade. She said there is a need to innovate and consolidate to reach out to the outside market. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)