It launched with a presidential escort and the promise of rare international travel to a postcard-perfect tropical island, but the Taiwan-Palau travel bubble has deflated after just a couple weeks, with Taiwanese bookings dwindling to single figures.
Travel agents, consumers and health authorities have blamed the high cost of the tours and the Taiwanese government’s strict rules for returning travellers.
The “sterile corridor” of bilateral tourism guaranteed travel between the two archipelagos, which are both otherwise closed to all tourists, on strictly managed, twice-weekly package tours.
The inaugural flight, packed with nearly 100 passengers including Palauan president Surangel Whipps Jr, boded well, but this week China Airlines announced it had cancelled an upcoming flight from Taipei after just two people booked tickets. The airline told the Guardian it was constantly assessing the situation but it couldn’t guarantee further cancellations.
To go on the Palau holiday from Taiwan, tourists must make several health declarations, pay for Covid tests, and not have left Taiwan in the last six months. Upon return they had to complete 14 days of “self-health management”, including five “enhanced” management days banned from public transport and spaces. On Wednesday health authorities announced it was dropping the enhanced requirement, and agencies are hoping it’s enough to restore interest.
One of the six agencies contracted to run the tours, Phoenix travel, told the Guardian they’d had “sporadic” individual bookings and inquiries about future tours, “but the momentum is not as good as expected”.
“The fare is higher than normal, plus the cost of two PCR tests, and the inconvenience of health management after returning home are the reasons why most travellers maintain a wait-and-see attitude,” the spokesperson said.
Gibsen Lin, marketing manager of Lifetour travel, said they had received many more inquiries for the upcoming summer holiday period from May to July, and that uncertainty about the process had also discouraged early take-up.
“Many details were not determined at the beginning. They changed the rules of the game … and then gave consumers less time to react in the market,” Lin said.
Taiwanese passengers pay between $2,100 and $2,800 plus associated costs for the group tour which runs for fewer than eight days, keeps the tourists away from crowded locations and local people, and doesn’t allow for autonomous activity.
On Wednesday evening Whipps welcomed the easing and said returnees who didn’t show signs of fever and hadn’t been in the presence of anyone who did, could “go about their daily lives as usual”.
Whipps also said costs had also been decreased, but did not detail by how much. He claimed the presence of Tropical Storm Surigae had also affected bookings, but that the two governments were working closely together to improve the bubble.
He said his office had been “assured” that the next scheduled flight on 21 April would have more passengers. The Guardian has contacted the Taiwan government for confirmation of the changes and comment.
Palau has recorded zero cases of Covid, and is on track to have 80% of its population vaccinated by the summer, while about 90% of Taiwan’s 1,062 cases were recently arrived people in quarantine, and there is no community transmission.
The travel bubble was hailed as a lifeline for Palau’s tourism industry, which contributes almost half of its GDP, but had been completely stalled by the pandemic. Taiwanese made up the third-largest proportion of tourists in pre-Covid times, behind people from China and Japan.
“We seek everyone’s support and patience as we continue to address challenges and improve the sterile corridor. Challenges help us improve customer experience and increase demand,” said Whipps.
“During this trying time, the private sector’s support is ever more important.”
Prior to Whipps’ statement, China Airlines told the Guardian it was making “constant adjustments” and couldn’t rule out further cancellations.