The governments of Taiwan and Palau have been operating a “travel bubble” since April 1, marking the return of international tourism between the two islands.
Both countries have managed the pandemic exceptionally well, but travel between the two hasn’t come roaring back just yet. Barriers like airline prices and health restrictions make traveling in the pandemic more difficult, and demand for trips is low.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Taiwan has reported just over 1,100 cases total, and Palau has reported 0 cases. On April 1, Palau — one of Taiwan’s few official diplomatic allies — opened a “sterile corridor” to allow tourists to visit without quarantining upon arrival.
Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. has said he’s hoping the bubble will revitalize Palau’s tourism industry. The small Pacific island is home to a population of under 20,000, and tourism accounts for almost half of its gross domestic product.
Eleanor Jiang, a Taiwanese travel vlogger, took the first flight to Palau on April 1.
“In the past, I would have traveled every, probably three or four months. ... I was looking for that kind of high myself — the international travel high.”
“In the past, I would have traveled every, probably three or four months,” she said. “I was looking for that kind of high myself — the international travel high.”
But she said the trip wasn’t as straightforward as it used to be. The first hurdle was the price.
Jiang said her four-day vacation to Palau cost about $2,800. That’s more than twice what it was in prepandemic days. Adding to the cost, she had to pay for COVID-19 tests before and after the trip.
There are also health restrictions for travelers going to Palau and returning to Taiwan.
“We had to make sure we had no travel history abroad for the past six months. Anyone who wants to travel cannot have a COVID[-19]-positive history,” Jiang said.
When returning to Taiwan, travelers must complete a 14-day period of “self-health monitoring,” which includes five days of avoiding crowds and public transportation.
Trips to Palau are also limited. To participate in the bubble, travelers have to join a group tour offered by a select number of travel agencies, and all activities are limited to a predetermined itinerary.
“I'd like to go back to Palau again, just [on] my own terms, because it was so confined this time,” Jiang said.
Demand for trips has dropped since the bubble opened.
China Airlines, the airline offering flights between Taiwan and Palau, canceled two of its trips because so few seats were booked. Taiwan’s Ministry of Health has relaxed protocols for returning travelers, and travel agencies are offering discounts.
EVA Airlines was planning to begin flights to Palau, but now they’re waiting to see if the demand goes back up. Still, Oscar Andre Quiros, a pilot for EVA Airlines, says it’s encouraging to see tourism return.
“It brings you the mental idea that ... we can have a life after this,” he said.
“It brings you the mental idea that...we can have a life after this."
Jason Wang, the director of Stanford University’s Center for Policy, Outcomes and Prevention, said the arrangement between Taiwan and Palau will be a model for the rest of the world.
“This is the way that the world's going to open up."
“This is the way that the world's going to open up,” he said. “Travel bubbles or corridors are going to get set up between countries that have contained the virus, or have very low cases or been vaccinated. And then, slowly the bubble will grow.”
Australia and New Zealand have made a similar deal with each other. Taiwan is also considering opening bubbles with Singapore, Vietnam and other countries.
Still, Wang said there are a lot of details to consider when opening up borders to outside travelers.
“You have to decide which places they could go,” he explained. “Do you only want them to visit the 10 places that you told them to go? So that in case anything happened, you can look into those 10 places? Or do you want to mingle with your population?”
Wang said governments will have to continuously fine-tune health protocols for each new bubble. Governments will have to trust that each participant in any travel bubble scheme is being responsible and transparent.
With the proper planning and execution, Wang explained, travel bubbles will act as bridges to reconnect the world.