Accelerating the maritime Silk Road development became a heated topic at the 8th Pan-Beibu Gulf (PBG) Economic Cooperation Forum, as the initiative is expected to inject fresh impetus to regional growth. The forum, which was held here on Thursday, drew government officials, experts and business people from China and the PBG countries of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Infrastructure development will get a boost from the ambitious plan with better connectivity linked by waterway, road and railway, according to transport officials attending the forum. Attendees also showed great interest in promoting tourism cooperation as countries along the maritime route have long coastlines and beautiful landscapes, and thus boast tremendous potential yet to be unleashed. Cross-border investment, financial innovation and cultural cooperation were also discussed at the forum to promote the building of the maritime Silk Road. A 21st century maritime Silk Road was proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Indonesia last October. Since ancient times, Southeast Asia has been an important hub along the historical maritime Silk Road, a commercial route on which China sold silk, ceramics and tea to overseas markets. The PBG forum, held in southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is a sub-regional mechanism under the China-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) framework. MARITIME CONNECTIVITY Jiang Zhenghua, former vice-chairman of the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, China's top legislature, said at the opening ceremony that the world is embracing an era of marine cooperation. China will make full use of the China-ASEAN Investment Cooperation Fund and China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund to promote port construction and logistics development in the PBG region, Jiang said. Ayumi Konishi, director general of the Asian Development Bank's East Asia Department, said 80 percent of trade in the PBG region depends on maritime transport. "Without good maritime connectivity, much of the region's potential will be untapped," said Konishi. Better connectivity was echoed by transport officials from Vietnam,Myanmar and Cambodia. Nguyen Hong Truong, vice minister of transport of Vietnam said, "Vietnam looks forward to continued close cooperation with ASEAN countries and China to enhance the PBG cooperation in prioritized areas including infrastructure, environmental protection, agriculture and people-to-people exchanges." U Han Sein, vice minister of transport of Myanmar, said Myanmar is intensifying efforts to fight corruption, reduce poverty and push for economic reforms, to create a good environment for foreign investment. Tram Lv Tek, minister of public works and transport of Cambodia, wooed investment in construction and expansion of two major ports in his country. TOURISM COOPERATION The tourism sector, with strong growth momentum, is rising to be a new engine in enhancing regional economic cooperation thanks to initiatives to promote person-to-person exchanges. Last August, four border cities in Guangxi including Beihai, Fangchenggang, Chongzuo and Baise, got the privilege to issue travel permits to non-local residents. Wang Min did not plan to visit Vietnam when he traveled to Guangxi on a self-drive tour with his family last year. In Dongxing, a small city on the China-Vietnam land border, Wang learned that he could apply for a travel permit to Vietnam by presenting his ID card, without a passport. The family decided to give it a go. In less than 2 hours, Wang's family received their permits and they signed up for a two-day tour to Vietnam. Latest figures from the local government showed that more than 50,000 people have traveled to Vietnam via Dongxing like Wang since August. Dongxing is under the jurisdiction of Fangchenggang. Besides land routes, currently, there are two sea routes linking Guangxi and Vietnam. They start from the scenic beach cities of Beihai and Fangchenggang respectively and both end at the Vietnamese world heritage site Halong Bay in northern Vietnam. Frequent tourism exchanges between Guangxi and Vietnam is just part of a bigger picture of a boom in tourist trips between China and ASEAN countries. Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia are among the top ten tourist destinations for Chinese travelers, while Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia rank among the top 15 tourist sources for China, according to figures from China National Tourism Administration. Chen Wu, chairman of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, said at the forum that China and ASEAN could consider visa exemptions to further boost marine tourism and cross-border trips. CHALLENGES AHEAD The much-anticipated maritime Silk Road calls for closer collaboration among members along the route. Yet, hurdles remain with unsolved funding as well as trade and investment barriers. Territorial disputes over the South China Sea cast doubts over prospects of the initiative. Qu Xing, director of China Institute of International Studies, said there are two approaches to address disputes. "One is no cooperation, or less cooperation. The other is expanding cooperation exactly because disagreements exist," he said. With the first approach, disagreement will feature increasingly prominent in the bilateral relations, said Qu. However, with the second approach of increasing cooperation, the share of disagreements will decrease in bilateral ties, and this will create better conditions for the settlement of disputes. Qu said regional forums like the PBG are important mechanisms to enhance understanding and advance regional cooperation. As to funding, Fan Gang, director of the National Economic Research Institute at the China Reform Foundation, called for more favorable conditions for private investors to participate in the construction of the maritime Silk Road. Zhang Junkuo, deputy head of the Development Research Center of the State Council, said it is important to properly handle the relationship between government and businesses. The government's role is to provide a good platform and businesses need to make good use of their resources and strength, said Zhang, adding that private participation is crucial to regional development.