THEOn Thursday, 110 people from Taiwan can enjoy what so many people around the world have dreamed of since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic: an international vacation in a tropical island paradise.
The tiny Pacific country of Palau in the northwestern Pacific, with a population of around 20,000, will begin welcoming tourists from Taiwan this week as part of a travel bubble.
Palau’s first visitors in more than a year are treated royally, and Palau’s president travels to Taiwan to personally escort them to the islands.
To travel to Palau, one of Taiwan’s few diplomatic allies, Taiwanese must spend between US $ 2,100 and US $ 2,800 to take a group tour booked through a travel agent. They will also need to tick a number of health regulation boxes, including a reassurance that they have not left Taiwan in the past six months and undergo a Covid-19 test at the airport.
The trip itself is limited to less than eight days and largely avoids crowded locations in Palau. But despite the rules in place, travel agents in Taipei say they have received inquiries since the bubble was announced on March 17.
KKDay, a popular travel startup that offers discounts on bookings, has already sold out two Palau tours and more than 1,000 lottery tickets to win a spot on a multi-day tour, according to its website.
The tiny Pacific country of Palau is slated to welcome up to 200 Taiwanese visitors in early April. Photo: Kate Lyons / The Guardian
“We ran empty”
Ngirai Tmetuchl, chairman of the board of directors of the Palau Visitors Authority, said the bubble would benefit both nations.
Taiwanese tourists would “go to another country and enjoy the pristine waters of Palau,” while compatriots could benefit from the boost to the archipelago’s economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism and has been badly hit by the border closings related to Covid.
Before the pandemic, tourism accounted for nearly 50% of Palau’s GDP, with Taiwan being the third largest group of tourists in the country after China and Japan.
Although the initial numbers will be small: “Two hundred [tourists coming in the first two weeks] is more than zero, our options are zero or 200. We have been empty for a year, ”said Tmetuchl.
On the program for tourists are excursions to the famous Rock Islands of Palau and the idyllic turquoise Jellyfish Lake, where swimmers can float between millions of gently pulsating golden jellyfish that have no spines.
Eledui Omela, president of the Palau Boat Owners Association, said it had been a difficult year for Palauian boat owners as most of them had borrowed to survive and that the prospect of Taiwanese tourists was welcome.
“We’ve been hit hard, this travel bubble is a good opportunity for us, but at the same time we want to make sure we’re ready,” said Omelau.
One of the main attractions for visitors to Palau is Jellyfish Lake Photo: Richard Brooks
Despite the potential financial lifeline, he is not alone in his concerns about the risks associated with opening the country up to foreign tourists.
“We have to be very, very careful,” said William Tsung, owner of the Landmark Hotel, which will welcome tourists from April. “[The] The Department of Health and Government have done a good job, but opening this market up in such a short amount of time is very, very scary. We are a covid free country, but Taiwan is not covid free, Taiwan is covid safe … what happens when this country [case] come in? After all this hard work for more than a year, we don’t want to see it because in the end we will suffer more than before. “
‘I am not ready’
The bubble is tightly controlled, with strict rules about what tourists can and can’t do, including social distancing and minimal interaction with locals. No member of the community can travel to the areas that tourists visit while the tourists are there.
President Surangel Whipps Jr. has assured the country that the bubble, or what is known as the “sealed corridor,” poses minimal risk. Taiwan has weathered the pandemic well with just over 1,000 cases and a total of 10 deaths.
“First of all, Taiwan is coviden-free in the community, but we test them at the airport before they get on the plane,” he said. “But even without the tests, the statistics show that the probability that the Covid will arrive in Palau is one in four million or one in 40,000 flights.”
Boats in port on the island of Palau, where tourism made up almost 50% of the economy before the Covid-19 pandemic Photo: Kate Lyons / The Guardian
He argues that Palau has the drugs and facilities to treat and contain cases, and also points to the country’s successful vaccination program. More than 60% of the adult population in Palau should have been vaccinated by mid-April, 80% should be vaccinated by summer.
“We are vaccinated. The people at high risk were vaccinated up the front [workers] got vaccinated, the people at the travel agency got vaccinated, that’s the protection we get. Yes, there is a risk, but it is very small, ”said Whipps.
“We want to open Palau, but we will do it safely. I know there are a lot of concerns, but I hope people will feel more secure and comfortable that we are doing this as carefully as possible.”
The president is optimistic that if the bubble’s first two weeks are successful, more flights can be made and the initial tourist cap of 200 can be raised.
Despite Whipps’ assurances, Tsung is also concerned that the security restrictions, particularly regarding room restrictions and hotel occupancy, will make it harder for vendors to make money.
“We will do our best to receive the tourists from Taiwan, but everything has gone up for Palau so far [in price]. You can feel that everything is expensive. Groceries showed up. The oil has been rising for a year … and the labor force is difficult too because a lot of the workers have left. Where can we find the local workforce? My business is not ready yet, I have 60% fewer staff even though my hotel is small. I’m not ready, ”said Tsung.