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Reopened border on Borneo brings hope

By PRIME SARMIENTO in Hong Kong | China Daily | Updated: 2022-08-12 10:56

Brunei and Malaysia have finally reopened the land and sea borders between them, allowing families to reunite and businesses to recover.

The Aug 1 border reopening, which came two years after COVID-19 forced its closure, not only bodes well for both countries, but also for the economies of Borneo, Southeast Asia's biggest island.

Borneo encompasses the sultanate of Brunei, the eastern Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak and Indonesia's Kalimantan region. Prior to the pandemic, Bruneians and Malaysians regularly crossed the border either by land or sea for both work and leisure.

Denise Chai, a restaurateur based in Brunei, welcomed the opening of the border, saying this will finally allow her to connect with her extended family in Sarawak.

Chai said many of her friends in Brunei and Malaysia have not seen their family for two to three years because of the border closure. She also noted that owing to mobility restrictions and the border closure, she had to shut down one of her cafes to focus on the domestic market and food deliveries.

Baizurah Basri, a Sabah-based graphic designer, said while she is lucky that she can still bond with her extended family in Brunei online, a lot of her Malaysian friends living in Brunei struggled because they could not visit their parents.

Malaysia is the biggest source of tourists for Brunei. In 2019, nearly 83,000 people visited the sultanate from Malaysia, official data shows.

And Sarawak's economy is the most entwined with Brunei's.

Bruneians regularly cross to Miri, Sarawak's second-largest city, which is located near the western border of the sultanate.

Brunei's strong currency and affinity with Malaysia has made the sultanate the top tourist source for Sarawak. In 2019, more than 1 million visitors came from Brunei, with tourism receipts topping 3 billion ringgit ($674.7 million).

Economic opportunities

Bruneians are also among the top tourist sources in neighboring Sabah, with more than 78,000 visitors arriving in 2019. Travelers to and from Brunei and Sabah either cross the border via air, land or sea.

Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs Saifuddin Abdullah said the border reopening was "very important" for the economy.

"So, Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei, there's a lot of trade going on in the three regions. And we are very happy that Brunei is finally opening its borders," he told online news site The Scoop.

Brunei began reopening its border in April, allowing vaccinated travelers to come in by air, but kept its land and sea borders closed.

Most tourists travel to Brunei via land or sea. In 2019, more than 4.1 million international visitors traveled by land or sea, while only 333,244 visitors arrived by air.

Mohd Amin Liew Abdullah, Brunei's minister at the Prime Minister's Office, said in June that the land and sea borders would reopen on Aug 1, but that this would depend on the COVID-19 situation.

On Aug 1, Brunei reopened land and sea borders by launching a new border control system.

"For East Malaysian states, we welcome more Bruneians by road than by air. This is especially true for border towns like Lawas (in Sarawak). It is therefore more significant to reopen (land) borders," said Alexander Yee, president of the Kinabatangan-Corridor of Life Tourism Operators Association in Sabah.

Yee has seen how tourism dried up in Sabah with border closures. He expects more Bruneians to return following the land border's reopening.

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