The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday announced plans for collaborative efforts to boost tourism to diplomatic ally Palau, which faces a Beijing-imposed ban on Chinese tour groups. “We want to encourage Taiwanese to visit our allies,” Department of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Director-General Ger Bau-shuan (葛葆萱) said.
Chinese have accounted for the majority of visits to Palau over the past few years, with 55,491 visitors to Palau from China last year alone. Japanese tourists formed the second-largest group, with 25,829 visits, while only 9,493 Taiwanese visited during the period.
Palau has a subsistence economy that relies on aid, in addition to small fishing and agriculture industries. Over the past decade, it has sought to become self-reliant through tourism. China has become so crucial to those ambitions that some worry the ban could spell trouble for Taiwan’s relationship with Palau.
Palauan Ambassador to Taiwan Dilmei Louisa Olkeriil said in an interview in December last year that the country’s relationship with Taiwan was “extremely stable,” a sentiment that appears to be shared by Palauan President Tommy Remengesau.
“Palau is a country of laws, it is a democracy and we make our own decisions,” the Financial Times quoted Remengesau’s press secretary Olkeriil Kazuo as saying.
Remengesau did not appear concerned about the drop in Chinese visits, saying that the boom in tourism from China had brought about “increased utilization of lower-grade hotels.” The country instead should aim to attract more “quality” tourists, he said.
However, not everyone in Palau sees things the same way. A Feb. 13 article in the Pacific Island Times said that five Palauan officials criticized Olkeriil for calling the Taiwan-Palau relationship stable.
“The ambassador’s careless and untimely dismissal of the valuable partnership between Chinese investors and Palau officials offends the very relationships that Palau has worked to develop,” the officials wrote in a letter to Palauan Minister of State Faustina Rehuher-Marugg. The officials also cited investment by China in nearby Micronesia, arguing that Palau is missing out by not forming official ties with Beijing.
Increasing tourism from Taiwan to Palau would not only help offset Palau’s loss of Chinese tourism money, but also serve to strengthen soft ties between the countries. Many in Taiwan are unfamiliar with Palau, despite it being one of a few remaining allies.
Taiwan is engaged in a number of development assistance projects in Palau, such as the Horticulture Project, which aimed to “support the Palauan government’s national policies and strategies regarding food security and balanced nutrition,” as well as the regular Healthcare Personnel Training Program, which provides Palauan medical personnel with on-the-job training. Yet cultural links between the two countries remain one-sided at best, with many Taiwanese knowing very little about Palau or ever visiting it.
The cost of flying to Palau is prohibitive: Only China Airlines offers four flight pairs per week on the route. A round-trip flight between Taipei and Koror, Palau, in the first week of October averaged NT$60,000. A flight in the same week to Guam, which is about as far from Taipei, cost about NT$20,000.
Getting more Taiwanese visitors to Palau requires significantly lowering ticket prices, which would likely mean government subsidies in the beginning. Careful marketing highlighting Palau’s unique natural scenery and culture would be important, too.
Finally, the government might consider looking at ways to promote long-term stays by Taiwanese in Palau, for example through a working holiday program or homestays. Living with Palauan families would give Taiwanese the chance to improve their English skills and allow them to forge local friendships.
If Palau and Taiwan’s other allies are to truly mean anything to Taiwanese, the government must foster grassroots exchanges.
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