Taiwan and Palau have kicked off their first quarantine-free “travel bubble”, with the hope of resuscitating their tourist sectors seriously battered in the past year by the Covid-19 pandemic and strict border control.
But Taiwanese tourism operators are not as optimistic over the policy as their government, saying the high prices and restrictions on the tour packages have scared potential tourists off planning a sightseeing trip to Palau.
A Boeing 737-800 from Taiwan’s major carrier, China Airlines, is expected to take off at 2.30pm on Thursday for the Micronesian island nation – with some 150 passengers on board – including 100 tourists and Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jnr, who led a delegation to Taiwan on Sunday to initiate the travel bubble.
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Initially, China Airlines will operate two flights a week, taking up to 110 Taiwanese tourists on each flight with about 40 seats reserved for Palauan officials and citizens, according to Taiwan’s tourism bureau.
The Taiwanese tourists, who paid NT$68,000-NT$85,000 (US$2,400-US$3,000) for the inaugural four-day trip in Palau, were expected to return on Sunday night, said Lin Hsin-jen, deputy director general of the tourism bureau.
Despite permission being given for the travel bubble, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centre has a list of strict rules for travellers to Palau, starting with pre-travel procedures, covering time in Palau and extending to post-trip measures.
While in Palau, travellers from Taiwan must stay in their tour groups, avoid crowds, keep separated from local residents and take arranged transport. The tourists must stay at hotels with approved epidemic prevention certificates, dine in designated areas with coronavirus-safe seating and maintain safe social distancing.
Before boarding the plane bound for Palau, travellers will have a PCR test, prove they have no history of international travel within the past six months, no quarantine or home isolation within two months and no record of coronavirus infection within three months, according to the centre.
Once home again, the standard 14-day quarantine is replaced by “enhanced” monitoring of one’s own health for five days, during which the traveller must adhere to the “one room for one person” prevention arrangement while staying home and forgoing meetings, public transport, restaurants and crowded places.
After five days, the returned traveller is tested for coronavirus at a hospital. If they are free of symptoms they advance to nine days of monitoring their own health during which they are free to visit public areas while wearing masks and social distancing.
The long list of rules and restrictions is no deterrent for some Taiwanese keen to take flight.
“After more than a year of being stranded in Taiwan because of the pandemic, these are all OK with me as long as I can go sightseeing abroad and take a break,” said a tourist who identified her last name as Yang, on the eve of departure.
But art designer Aki Wu, who used to travel abroad at least three times a year, said he would wait because he found the price of the tour too high. “It is more than double the price before the pandemic, there are still too many restrictions during and after the tour, which are rather annoying,” he said.
Despite promotion by both the Palauan and Taiwanese governments, sales following the first package tours were reported to be down at least half. Operators admitted that the high price and many restrictions were behind lower-than-expected ticket sales.
“There is no doubt the travel bubble agreement can help revitalise our sagging tourism but the extra fees, including the PCR tests and some additional costs unexpectedly incurred by operators in Palau, have sharply increased our tour prices to NT$70,000-NT$90,000, which have discouraged our tourists from visiting,” said Kao Ming-tu, research and development head of Taiwan’s Travel Agent Association.
Kao said the strict regulations were another factor discouraging Taiwanese tourists, including the strict self-health management for 14 days on their return.
As of Wednesday, Taiwan had reported 1,030 infections, including 77 locally transmitted infections and just 10 deaths. A total of 981 have recovered.
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