The tiny Pacific nation of Palau has announced plans to open a travel bubble with Taiwan in a move it hopes will boost the tourism-reliant economy.
“The date has finally arrived, it’s time to open up,” President Surangel Whipps told reporters late Wednesday, almost exactly a year after the nation closed its borders.
Whipps said he would take a charter flight to Taipei later this month and return on 1 April with a group of 110 Taiwanese tourists.
From there, the plan is to gradually have 16 flights a week on the route, a major lifeline for an economy that before the pandemic relied on tourism for more than half its gross domestic product.
Palau, which lies about 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) east of the Philippines, is one of the few places on Earth never to have recorded a case of Covid-19.
The travel bubble is partly due to Palau’s special relationship with Taiwan.
It is one of only 15 nations worldwide to offer Taipei diplomatic recognition in the face of China’s long-standing claim that Taiwan is part of its territory.
Whipps said strict measures would be enforced to protect Palau’s population of 18,000.
He also pointed to Taiwan’s success in containing the virus, with just 990 confirmed cases and 10 deaths in a population of 23.6 million.
“Palau is Covid-free and Taiwan is Covid-safe,” he said.
Taiwanese visitors must undergo preflight coronavirus checks, 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 being allowed to shop only at set times.
Whipps acknowledged no system was foolproof but said Taiwanese health authorities had calculated but the chance of Covid-19 reaching Palau via the travel bubble was one-in-four million.
“We’ve built all kinds of barriers and shields to protect our people,” he said.
“We understand, yes we’re taking a risk because there’s nothing that’s 100 percent guaranteed.”