While lukewarm on travel bubble with Guam, Taiwan is exploring trade and investment opportunities on island
Taiwanese travelers get on the plane that flies to nowhere. It circles around the island, with passengers pretending to travel overseas. After the pretend trip, the passengers head straight to the airport duty-shop to buy souvenirs.
“They don’t go anywhere because they can’t, but Taiwanese are eager to travel again because they have been on a lockdown for so long,” said Paul Chen, director general of Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office.
When the coronavirus-related travel drought ends, Guam can expect to see a 20 percent jump in traffic from Taiwan, Chen said. “Based on my rough estimates, we used to have 30,000 Taiwanese travelers come to Guam. We are a small country, so 30,000 is a lot,” Chen said. “I think when the pandemic is over, we probably could expect 36,000.”
Taiwan is a much-touted success story. It has gained worldwide acclaim for its response to the pandemic. With a population of 24 million, Taiwan has managed to keep its Covid-19 caseload down to 842. Halting flights from China early on and the implementation of strict quarantine rules combined with careful contact tracing helped keep the virus from spreading. As cases of Covid-19 spread to other locations, Taipei banned inbound foreign visitors by March.
As the Taiwanese government works its way to reopen its borders, Guam is hoping to secure the Taiwan market through a travel bubble between the two jurisdictions.
But there is no guarantee this will happen anytime soon. “If we can control the virus between Guam and Taiwan, of course that is possible,” Chen said.
At this point, however, the proposed travel bubble might be a long shot. Guam has been a Covid hotspot in the region.
Chen said the arrival of China Airlines passengers who were part of Taiwan’s humanitarian mission group from Guam on Jan. 11 created “a lot of tension” among the Taiwanese. “That was big news in Taiwan,” Chen said.
The charter flight transported 50 passengers including Guam patients needing off-island medical treatments and Taiwanese citizens who were stranded on Guam.
“In Taiwanese mind, Guam is a friend,” Chen said. “Everything about Guam is good: hospitality, beach, sunshine and it is three and a half hours away. They want to come, but right now they can’t, especially with new variants of the coronavirus.”
The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office reopened on Guam in October last year after a three-year hiatus. The decision to temporarily close the office was made in 2017 after a financial review.
TECO has reopened as ties between Washington and Taipei thrive amid the United States’ efforts to beef up presence in the region as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy. The relationship bumped another notch following the U.S. government’s recent move to lift decades-old restrictions between American and Taiwanese officials.
Taiwan has maintained close business ties with Guam even after the TECO’s temporary shutdown in 2017.
Since TECO's reopening, Guam and Taiwanese officials have begun dialogs on mapping out plans for the future as they explore areas that can create mutual benefits.
“But tourism is not our priority with Guam,” Chen said. “We want more economic cooperation that is more substantial. We’re thinking about long term investments. We can export to the U.S. from here— through a free trade zone, if that is possible.”
One of the things Guam officials tried to seek from Taiwan is labor. However, Chen said the Taiwanese government is unable to help Guam in this area. “We do not have the ability to export labor,” he said. “We import foreign labor from Southeast Asia to build our road infrastructure.”
Chen said he is now working with several companies in Taiwan to start a collaboration and match them with Guam’s needs. “Guam can identify what industries it wants to do and focus on that," he said.
Aquaculture is one industry in which Taiwan can extend assistance by bringing investors and establishing an academic exchange program. “We can train students or farmers how to grow their products,” Chen said. “It would take years to develop that environment but we can start now.”
Chen said Guam must also identify projects that Taiwanese investors can build on their existing properties.
Taiwan’s Lih Pao Company, which owns the Talo Verde Townhomes, also has a piece of idle property along Tumon Bay. “What we want is more real estate developments on Guam,” Chen said. “Companies don’t want to just invest in empty land; they want to do something and they want to get guidance from the governor.”
Another possibility is to bring the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world's largest contract electronic chipmaker that supplies technology companies such as Apple and Huawei. However, Chen said this plan may be a pipedream at this time. Building a TSMC factory on Guam is currently not feasible due to certain limitations on the island. “Guam will need a lot of engineers for this project,” Chen said
Also on the list is the opening of cargo flights from Taiwan to bring fresh produce at lower cost to Guam. “We can bring fresh vegetables and fruits so that Guam doesn’t have to import from California. Taiwan is four hours away while California is 18 hours,” Chen said.
Taiwan is also interested in Guam’s medical care. With plans to build a new medical facility that will replace the Guam Memorial Hospital, Chen said Taiwan can offer management services. “We are here to help manage a modern hospital,” he said. “It’s a profitable business but for the benefit of the people of Guam. Patients on Guam will not have to go to Taiwan for treatment if they can get proper treatment here.”
While possibilities may be endless, Chen said Guam can start addressing the stumbling blocks now.