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LETTER | Make Tawau an air transport hub

LETTER | Tawau, one of the largest cities in Sabah, has the tremendous potential to become the airport hub due to its strategic location, bordering major cities and towns in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Similar to other states on the peninsula, such as Penang and Malacca, which are popular among Indonesians from Sumatra seeking medical treatment and studying at various tertiary institutions, Tawau also possesses the necessary attributes to attract travellers, patients, and students from various towns in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and several islands in the southern part of the Philippines.

Kalimantan alone has a population of about 16 million, while Sulawesi and Mindanao are estimated to have populations of approximately 20 million and 27 million, respectively.

Currently, the Tawau airport primarily serves domestic flights operated mainly by three local airlines while there are currently no dedicated flights serving routes to the Philippines or Indonesia. Malaysia airlines used to fly directly to Tarakan, Indonesia, the largest city of the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan, along the coast of Tawau.

As an alternative to flying, a significant number of travellers use ferries on a daily basis to reach Tarakan or Nunukan, a small town located in the north of Kalimantan, bordering Tawau.

These passengers are mainly locals or individuals with business interests or relatives residing in various places in Kalimantan or Sulawesi. A similar situation exists in other parts of the east coast of Sabah, where travellers go to various islands in the southern Philippines.

To illustrate the proximity of these places to Tawau, a journey by ferry to Tarakan takes about 3.5 hours, while flying takes less than 30 minutes, covering a distance of 120km.

Another major city close to Tawau is Manado, located in the northern part of Sulawesi, as well as Makassar in the southern part. It takes approximately more than 10 hours to travel from Tawau to Manado and Makassar, including transfers, while a direct flight will take between three to four hours.

The closest among all is Sebatik, an island opposite Tawau shared by Malaysia and Indonesia. This is a unique place of which not many Malaysians are aware, and it’s only about 20 minutes away by speedboat. Healthcare and education services are two areas in which we can attract a large number of Indonesians from Sebatik to Tawau.

I can see a significant demand for direct flights connecting Tawau to major cities in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Zamboanga, and other islands in the Philippines, including Tarakan, Banjarmasin, Makassar, Pare-Pare, Manado, Zamboanga, Mindanao, and Davao.

Given the upcoming establishment of Indonesia’s new administrative capital of Nusantara in Kalimantan, it is an opportune time to develop Tawau as a hub for airports, capitalising on the significant opportunities that will arise.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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