As the Palau National Government continues to pursue the possibility of “bubble tourism” amid the pandemic, the Bureau of Tourism (BOT) has said that it will be providing a training course to certify businesses involved in the tourism industry, such as hotels and dive-shops, to safely handle tourists.
Although the training content and schedule is still under development, the BOT has said that the course will ensure that the tourism industry in Palau is equipped to properly use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), sanitizers, and social-distancing measures to keep an incoming flow of tourists safe from COVID transmission.
The Pandemic Safety Certification Program, which is being put together by “Quad-Org”, a collaboration between the BOT, Palau Visitors Authority (PVA), Palau Chamber of Commerce (PCOC), and Belau Tourism Association (BTA), will involve a two-to-three week preparation for representatives from Palau’s tourism companies, who will in turn be expected to train their employees.
Palau has not seen any tourists since March, when it closed its borders. Although Palau remains on a list of only seven countries in the world which have stayed COVID-free throughout the pandemic, this has drastically hurt Palau’s tourism-reliant economy, with the Ministry of Finance projecting a 25% drop in revenue by the end of 2021. The current Presidential Administration has made attempts to open tourism “bubbles” with countries deemed “low-risk”, such as Taiwan, which hasn’t reported a case of community-transmission since April. Last month, a planned tourism bubble with Taiwan was postponed, allegedly due to Palau’s inability to relax quarantine protocol.
The Transition Committee for President-Elect Surangel Whipps Jr., who will be assuming office in January, has said that it would like to reopen borders for tourism, and will be working with the Ministry of Health (MOH) to find safe ways to do this.
The BOT says that the idea of the Safety Certification Program is to first train the “front-liners” involved in bubbles with countries like Taiwan.
Although the training itself will be free, many tourism operators have expressed concern that the cost of implementing these new COVID-safe measures, such as buying sanitizers and PPE’s for all employees and guests, may be too high for companies which are already struggling to stay open.
In response to queries about whether government funds, such as those left over from the CARES Act, can be used to provide tourism operators with the required supplies, the PVA said that discussions are being held between the current and incoming President for how to proceed.
“We’re in transition now—a lot of these things are in limbo,” said PVA Chairman Ngiraibelas Tmetuchl at the Fourth Annual Small Business Forum on November 12. “Many of these concerns will be presented to the new President and admin for his consideration . . . but for now with this pandemic, there’s a new world order, whether we like it or not.”
Mr. Tmetuchl added that many hotels in Palau, such as Palau Royal Resort (PRR), have already implemented COVID-safe measures, but that recommendations are being made for ways to help out small businesses.
These preparations coincide with the announcement of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine which is proven to be 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-transmission. The MOH has expressed hope that Palau will receive distributions of the vaccine by early next year, and aims to have 80 percent of Palau’s population vaccinated by May. But discussions are still being held on whether Palau should open its borders to tourism as soon as the vaccine arrives or as soon as 80 percent of the population is vaccinated.
While the MOH says that Palau must be cautious about relaxing quarantine protocol, some tourism operators have said that they may need to shut their doors before May if nothing happens.
“The Government and the MOH has done a great job thus far at keeping us virus-free, and all of us are scared literally to death about this virus getting into Palau,” said Sam Scott of Sam’s Tours. “But can we sustain ourselves until a vaccine arrives into the Republic? I’m not so sure.”