Palau-Taiwan travel bubble is data and research-based, president says

Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr., right, spoke at the UOG Center for Island Sustainability's conference Friday morning. At left is moderator Jackie Marati. (Still image from the UOG CIS virtual conference)

Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. says the decision to pursue the Taiwan-Palau travel bubble was based on data and research as well as long-term dialogue between the two nations.

Whipps Jr. spoke at the UOG Center for Island Sustainability’s conference Friday morning 

The travel bubble between Palau and Taiwan officially opened with the arrival of more than 100 Taiwanese tourists on April 1. 

The travel bubble or as Palau describes it — the “Palau-Taiwan sterile corridor” — instituted processes and infrastructure that would safely transport tourists between the two COVID-safe nations. 

The process involves requiring PCR tests and clearance for Taiwanese tourists about to board a flight to Palau.

According to the Palau President, the idea to finally open the corridor was based on data and extensive preparations from both nations — a confidence-building process that included a visit from Taiwanese officials to check the island’s health infrastructure back in January.

He said the U.S. Health and Human Services team also provided training to healthcare and medical personnel in providing support and care to COVID-19 patients.

HHS also shared data on COVID-19 risks and the data shared solidified the Palau government’s decision to start the travel bubble with Taiwan. 

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“Ultimately,  you need to make decisions based on facts. Just the data that was shared — that if we indeed opened a corridor with Taiwan, the risk of getting a COVID-19 case from Taiwan is one in 4 million. We can look at accepting that risk because we would have to take 40,000 flights before we can get a COVID case,” he said.

He added: “But of course it could be on the first flight but basically it was again getting to the point of where we are. It was looking at risks and being prepared and most importantly, establish it with a country that was basically in the same situation as Palau.”

Tourism downturn

For the first time since March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Palau allowed tourists to come in. 

Like Guam, Palau’s tourism-dependent economy was impacted by the pandemic.

According to Whipps Jr., 42 percent of Palau’s payroll in the private sector was affected because of the downturn in tourism.

“In the past year, since we opened the corridor, there were zero tourists for a whole year. That really has a negative impact on the businesses, the people, and anything that we could have done … anything that we could do to get back on track is critical,” he said.

After opening the travel bubble, the next challenge is attracting more Taiwanese tourists to take advantage of the bubble, according to the Palau President.

At the Guam Visitors Bureau meeting this week, GVB Vice President Gerry Perez says while the initial flight from Taiwan to Palau was fully booked with 110 passengers, it was mostly medical personnel and the travel and trade media. He said there were few seats for tourists and there are still many seats available for the other scheduled free flights scheduled.

Perez said the price for the Palau-Taiwan travel packages has already been drastically reduced to attract consumers.