What's next for Palau after the travel bubble burst?
Koror— While the Palau-Taiwan inaugural flight on April 1 may have fueled a ray of light on tourism recovery, the number of tourists who have traveled through the sterile corridor was fewer than expected. The much-ballyhooed travel bubble has now come to a full stop.
The Taiwanese travelers’ disappointing response to the travel arrangement was compounded by a resurgence of Covid-19 in Taiwan, which prompted authorities to place the capital Taipei and surrounding areas on high alert and restrictions.
Prior to the new outbreak in Taiwan, Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. noted that the travel bubble had challenges but he was optimistic those issues could be resolved.
He acknowledged that the travel cost to Palau was not cheap. Besides the steep airfare and cost of Covid tests, tour companies have jacked up their prices
“An example would be the price of boat tours, which ranged from $450 to $600 and then it went up to $1,200. We have to work together to provide good service, give a good price and help everybody,” he said.
He also highlighted the high cost of testing verification. “Part of what we need to do is reduce the cost of (polymerase chain reaction test) and find ways to make this affordable. Currently, it’s $3,000 for three days— that’s a $1,000 a day, so it’s pretty expensive,” Whipps said.
The original target was to bring 100 Taiwanese passengers per flight, scheduled once a week. But preliminary arrivals fell short of expectations. The low demand was also attributed to other forms of hindrances, such as continuing restrictions and Covid-19 procedures, PVA chairman of the board Ngirai Tmetuchl said.
“The company that does testing at the airport requires all passengers to inform them three days prior,” he said.
In Taiwan, Tmetuchl said, another big issue was the five-day self-monitoring and a PCR test required for all travelers originating from Palau. “Taiwan has also imposed a nearly $5,000 fine if these requirements are not adhered to,” he added.” Those are some of the barriers that are involved with the cost, which we are working with Taiwan to remove.”
The Covid-free Palau was working on enticing Taiwanese tourists to visit the nation. Taiwan established a travel visitor center to “monitor and coordinate the efforts of Ministry of Health in Palau, and the testing facility in Taiwan and the airline.”
PVA continues to promote Palau as a safe destination through social media. While few is better than none, the sterile corridor is currently closed. Nevertheless, Whipps announced that China Airlines, the facilitator of the travel bubble, remained committed to flying to Palau until June.
The situation in Taiwan is another factor to consider. As of mid-May, Taiwan has recorded more than 2,500 new transmissions. Until last month, Taiwan was praised globally for successfully keeping the virus at bay, registering slightly more than 1,400 cases and only 14 deaths in 2020. The success allowed the population to become accustomed to normal life without restrictions and lockdowns.
The May 22 flight from Taiwan to Palau had been canceled. The Taipei Times reported that China Airlines has canceled all direct flights to Palau until June 8.
With an economy dependent on tourism, the sector is the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Whipps said 42 percent of Palauans employed in the private sector were affected due to the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, close to 100,000 tourists a year visited the tiny nation known for its pristine waters and abundant and healthy marine life. The tourism industry contributes close to 50 percent to the GDP and the pandemic has forced many businesses to close down and reduce staff as a result.
While trying to recover from the impact of Covid-19, Palau is also still reeling from the wreckage left by typhoon Surigae. The typhoon, which hit Palau on April 16, was estimated to have cost nearly $5 million in damage to infrastructure.
Although the travel bubble is on hold, leaders strengthen the ties between Palau and Taiwan. On May 20, Taiwan gifted Palau with $400,000 in tourism revitalization assistance, in addition to $1 million received from Taipei in April.
“Taiwan Embassy has been working closely with the national government, the Palau Visitors Authority, and the Chamber of Commerce to bring normalcy back to Palauan businesses and plan for a robust post-pandemic tourism resumption,” states a press release from the Office of Palau President. “This donation is a part of an effort to revitalize Palau’s tourism-based economy and enhance tourism cooperation between the two partner countries.”