Diplomatic allies Taiwan and Palau begin COVID-19 travel bubble

Taiwan and Palau launched what is being billed as Asia’s first coronavirus travel bubble on Thursday as the two diplomatic allies try to kickstart their battered tourist industries after successfully keeping infections at bay.

Around 100 excited Taiwanese tourists arrived at Taoyuan international airport near Taipei on Thursday morning, checking in some five hours before their afternoon flight in order to be tested for the coronavirus.

“I haven’t been on an airplane for over a year and I am so excited,” one unnamed passenger told SET TV at the airport.

“This is the inaugural tour and we are on the same flight with Palau president,” he added.

President Surangel Whipps has been on a visit to Taiwan since Sunday and will accompany the Taiwanese tourists back to his Pacific island nation.

Palau lies about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) east of the Philippines and is one of the few places on Earth never to have recorded a COVID-19 case.

It is also one of only 15 nations that still recognizes Taiwan over China, despite intense pressure from Beijing to switch sides.

Taiwan was hit early by the coronavirus when it spread from China last year.

But it defeated its own outbreak and has managed to keep infections controlled thanks to strict border controls, quarantine and tracing.

“It takes so long for the (launch) of the travel bubble and a lot of long-term efforts by everyone,” Taiwanese health minister Chen Shih-chung, told reporters.

“Both sides are pandemic-safe so the journey can begin,” he added.

The plan is to eventually have 16 flights a week on the route, a major lifeline for Palau’s economy, which before the pandemic relied on tourism for more than half its gross domestic product.

Despite Taiwan’s coronavirus free status, strict measures will still be enforced to protect Palau’s 18,000-strong population from the risk of infection.

All tourists must test negative before the flight. They can travel only in tour groups and are barred from making individual excursions.

Contact with Palau locals will be kept to a minimum, with tourists staying at designated hotels, eating in separate restaurant areas and allowed to shop only at set times.

Taiwan — population 23 million — has been hailed as a global success story in containing the virus, with some 1,030 confirmed cases and 10 deaths.

Whipps has acknowledged no system is foolproof but said health experts had calculated that the chance of COVID-19 reaching Palau via the travel bubble was one in four million.

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