The government should draw up new measures to boost tourism to Palau, as a “travel bubble” arrangement between Taiwan and the Pacific ally has turned out not to be fruitful.
Earlier this week, Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr told a news conference that there would be no flights from Taipei to Koror this month due to cancelations by China Airlines. He urged Taiwan to consider whether other airlines could serve the route.
“I think China Airlines is playing with Palau market. They need to change their behavior, need to be invested and think long-term about the Palau market. What they are doing is poisoning Palau’s market, and it is irresponsible,” Palau’s Island Times quoted him as saying on Friday.
In response, China Airlines said that since the travel bubble program started on April 1, it has operated two flights per week to Palau, except for when the program was suspended from May to July due to a severe local COVID-19 outbreak in Taiwan. However, it had in the past few weeks canceled some flights, citing a drop in bookings.
Trying to ease the tension, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday lauded China Airlines for helping promote Taiwan-Palau tourism. The ministry said it would discuss with pertinent agencies and businesses how to improve flight links with Palau to ensure that the travel bubble is stable and convenient for travelers.
The inception of the program on April 1 was met with significant public attention.
Whipps and his wife arrived in Taiwan on March 28 for a five-day trip to promote it, accompanied by US Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland. They met with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮). At a joint news conference with the visitors, Wu thanked the US for its help in making the travel bubble possible.
It was Whipps’ first overseas trip after taking office, after Wu from Jan. 20 to 22 visited Palau to attend his inauguration ceremony. While Taiwan and Palau only established diplomatic ties in 1999, their bonds appear to be stronger than the nation’s relations with other allies, such as those in Central America, which often appear torn between the US and China.
Palau last month also accepted visitors vaccinated with the domestically developed Medigen COVID-19 vaccine, which has so far only also been recognized by Belize, Indonesia and New Zealand.
However, Palau is not unfamiliar with Beijing’s economic clout. In May 2018, then-Palauan president Tommy Remengesau said that his country would not bow to Chinese pressure to cut off ties with Taiwan, after China in 2017 banned group tours to Palau. While he said that Palau and Taiwan share values such as freedom, he also told Nikkei Asia in an interview that “if we had a choice, we would like to recognize China and Taiwan tomorrow.”
Remengesau’s remarks reflect the struggles of Pacific island nations whose economies rely heavily on tourism, which might also be behind the pressure faced by Whipps, and why he had to reproach China Airlines publicly.
Taiwan cannot expect the travel bubble to be a cure-all for Palau’s post-COVID-19 recovery.
After all, tourism is driven by market needs, and the government cannot force people to visit another country. Most tourists value fresh experiences, and they might favor destinations other than Palau, such as Japan, once Tokyo and Taipei open their borders.
To consolidate the nation’s ties with its faithful friend Palau, the government should propose more measures to support Palau’s economy.
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