The COVID-19 outbreak that has gripped the nation for the past two months and the restrictions imposed to curb its spread have dealt a harsh blow to hotels and eateries, with operators calling for a government bailout.
The industry is barely hanging on and desperate for government assistance, Hotel Association spokesman Cheng Sheng-chang (鄭生昌) said.
“I can’t describe how awful the situation is now. Basically we’re on life support,” he said.
About 60 percent of Taiwan’s hotels have voluntarily ceased operations and most of the others have been converted into quarantine hotels, he said.
Hotels designated as quarantine hotels can accept travelers who have arrived from abroad and need to quarantine for 14 days or self-isolate, providing at least some income in lean times, especially after restrictions were tightened in the middle of May.
After a spike in the number of confirmed cases, Taiwan on May 15 imposed a level 3 COVID-19 alert in Taipei and New Taipei City, and on May 19 expanded it nationwide.
The restrictions limited people’s movements and consumer activity. Gatherings of more than four people indoors and nine people outdoors were prohibited, entertainment and cultural venues were closed, and dine-in service was not allowed.
However, even before then, Taiwanese were cautious about domestic travel and the nation’s borders remained virtually sealed to inbound tourists, making it hard for hotels to survive.
The Tourism Bureau offered travel industry employers a one-time subsidy of NT$40,000 for each of their employees to subsidize their wages between April and this month, but Cheng said more is needed for the rest of the year as the market is not getting better.
Data released by the Ministry of Labor showed that the number of workers in the lodging and food/beverage sectors on unpaid leave programs soared in the past two weeks to 14,814 as of Friday, suggesting that the situation for employers has gotten worse.
However, the figures might seriously underestimate the scale of the difficulties those industries are facing. The tourism subsidy, which stipulated that employers who received it could not put employees on unpaid leave, benefited an estimated 98,000 people, the bureau said when it issued the payments, indicating how widespread the need for help was.
Cheng added that much of the official data failed to capture the huge hospitality supply chain in its totality and the hundreds of thousands of people it employs.
A restaurant worker, surnamed Lai (賴), also expressed her frustrations, saying she has only been able to work on weekends over the past two months.
The 67-year-old said it was already hard to find a job after retirement, and not being a union member has made it very difficult to get help.
“There is no chance for people like us who are at the bottom of society, and the agencies I have called are merely passing the buck,” she said.
The industry can only hope for the lifting of the alert to make ends meet, Lai said.
As soon as case numbers spiked in mid-May, it was clear that the hotel and restaurant sector would struggle.
Figures released in late May by 104 Job Bank showed declines in vacancies posted by many industries. Job offers in the food and beverage sector fell by 11,871, or 9.6 percent, from April 30 to May 19, while those in the lodging sector dropped 13.4 percent.
The level 3 restrictions were partially eased on Tuesday last week, with some movie theaters, gyms and museums reopening, but the ban on dine-in services has yet to be lifted by most local governments.
Cheng said he was confident that once the level 3 alert is lifted, hotels in Yilan, Hualien and Taitung would see a significant recovery brought by pent-up travel demand.
However, he said he was worried about the hospitality industry in urban areas, which account for two-thirds of the 3,400 hotels in the nation.
It is unclear how comfortable potential guests would be to make overnight visits to cities even as the case numbers drop, he said.
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