By Eoghan Olkeriil Ngirudelsang
Palau-Taiwan travel bubble begins amid a mixture of excitement and anxiety
Koror — Palau’s travel bubble with Taiwan is touted to be the first in the Asia Pacific. In the coronavirus raging era, both countries have a claim to fame — Palau remains completely Covid-free, while Taiwan has managed to promptly curb the outbreak before it got worse.
While Palau may have dodged the coronavirus assault, the border closure has taken its toll on the visitor industry, which has been on shaky ground over the years even prior to the onslaught of the global pandemic.
The shrinking numbers were attributed to China’s move in late 2017 to ban package tours to Palau. China’s decision to cancel Palau’s approved destination status was widely viewed as a “punishment” for the Pacific nation’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
But Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. — as did his predecessor Tommy Remengesau— refuses to kowtow to Beijing. He has affirmed Palau’s relationship with Taiwan, which is further sealed by the “sterile corridor.”
The April 1 launch of the travel bubble was officially announced by President Surangel Whipps Jr. and Taiwan’s Ambassador to Palau Wallace Chow at a press conference held March 17 in Koror.
Whipps said the travel bubble, also dubbed as “sterile corridor,” has been in planning for about six months.
On Jan. 6 and 7, a Taiwanese delegation visited Palau. The team toured health facilities and assessed Palau’s readiness to control Covid-19 in the event that this globally feared virus enters the coronavirus-free nation Palau through this travel bubble. All requirements for this travel arrangement have been set up “to make sure that the guidelines and process that we put in place ensure that the travel bubble is safe” Palau’s Health Director Sher Madraisau said.
However, the reopening of tourism, albeit partial and guarded, was greeted with mixed emotions. On March 19, the Palau Chamber of Commerce organized a Palau-Taiwan mixer, where tourism industry stakeholders met to network in anticipation of new business that will come through this travel arrangement.
Contrastingly, many citizens have been actively posting on social media opposing the opening Palau’s borders to foreign travelers.
Nonetheless, with plans all finalized, Palau and Taiwan are putting in motion a travel bubble similar to what other countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong as well as Australia and New Zealand have been planning since last year.
Palau is famous for its pristine environment and tourism is its bread and butter, accounting for about three-quarters of the nation’s gross domestic product. In fiscal 2017, however, Palau’s economy contracted by 3.7 percent due to tourist arrivals dropping sharply by 17 percent.
Experts projected the industry to bounce back in 2020, but the anticipated upturn was aborted by the global pandemic. In June 2020, the U.S. Department of Interior reported that Palau was anticipated to experience a 22.3 percent decline in GDP and a loss of 3,128 jobs, primarily in the private sector, resulting from the pandemic-triggered pause in tourism.
Citing the Graduate School USA's Economic Monitoring and Analysis, DOI said Palau's fiscal deficit, resulting from the loss of tax revenues such as the payroll tax, gross revenues tax, hotel room tax and import taxes, was projected to be about $40 million. However, this impact is partially mitigated by Compact grants and trust fund revenues.
Palau’s travel bubble with Taiwan offers glimmers of hope for tourism to start picking up.
There will be no quarantine requirement for Taiwanese travelers upon their arrival in Palau. However, they are required to be tested negative of Covid-19 at the Taiwan airport before they board their plane. All travelers going through this sterile corridor to Palau will be tested using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
“This is the gold standard of all covid testing methods,” said Ritter Udui, the incident commander of Palau’s emergency operations center. Udui further clarified that this PCR test is capable of identifying newly emerged different variants of Covid.
“This travel bubble is restricted only to Taiwanese passport holders,” Chow said.
The only exemption is for those returning Palauan patients and their escorts who went to Taiwan through the medical referral program. The exception is also extended to essential workers from other countries that have been allowed by the Palauan government to travel to Palau. However, a 14-day quarantine in Taiwan prior to their trip is required.
Furthermore, this agreement requires group travel. All visitors must be part of package tours that will be touring in what Palau calls restricted movements. This deal requires tourists to go sightseeing and eat at restaurants in groups.
Such requirements are all part of Palau’s robust system to contain Covid-19 in case it lands in this Covid-free zone.
As for flights from Palau, it will be mostly transporting Palauans on medical trips to Taiwan as well as returning Taiwanese tourists. Ambassador Chow told the media that Taiwan also welcomes Palauan tourists. However, they will have to adhere to what Taiwan calls “enforced self-health management.”
“They will only carry very limited activities in the first five days and cannot go to night markets, supermarkets, restaurants and those crowded areas,” Chow said. They will then have to take a PCR test after those five days.
While Taiwan is not administering Covid vaccines to its citizens, Palau has vaccinated 8,083 of its people with the first dose of vaccine as of March 16. Currently, mass vaccination to administer the second dose is ongoing to finish this cycle of more than eight thousand people.
Once complete, 62 percent of Palau’s adult population over the age of 18; those who are off age to receive Covid-19 vaccines would be vaccinated, according to reports from the Ministry of Health. Palau is striving to achieve herd immunity by inoculating at least 80 percent of its population.
Palau-Taiwan’s travel bubble begins with two flights per week— each flight carrying up to 130 passengers.
Whipps said Taiwan initially wanted 16 flights a week but Palau decided to start small and hopefully increase the number of flights it receives gradually. All flights will be made through China Airlines.
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