During my recent trip overseas, I had the opportunity to observe how countries around us were doing compared with what is happening here at home, which got me worried about us.
On the first leg of my travel, I stayed in the Philippines for three and a half days. It was a great feeling just to be in the Philippines after nearly three and a half years. The country, as usual, is hopping with activity, but I realized after the first day of looking for a laundry service that many businesses are no longer there. My friend pointed out how sparse the crowd at the popular mall was compared to 2019 when we were there. Of course, with millions of people, there were still people around, but there were no super long queues to stand in.
This was a repeated experience in different places that we went to, where before, you bumped into people left and right, but now, you have more room around you.
The second leg of the journey was to Vietnam. Although I’ve never been to Vietnam, landing in Ho Chi Minh felt crowded, with long lines at Immigration and security checks. While waiting, I commented on how long the line was and whether I could make my connecting flight, an American married to a Vietnamese lady in front of me said they were catching the same flight, and we won’t be late. He said that this was not crowded and that before COVID, two and half hours layover would not be enough time for me to make my connecting flight. To say I was shocked was an understatement, as it felt quite crowded.
Arriving at Da Nang, Vietnam, I was struck by the beauty of the place but second, later noticed how empty the place was. Large hotels, and large restaurants, all with few people inside. Many restaurants along the beachfront area look like they seat over 200 people. I thought, perhaps during the day, not too many people eat out and that at night, people would fill out the restaurants. At 9 PM, returning to my hotel from the conference venue, I noticed the same restaurants with customers, but it looked like 4 or 5 tables out of maybe fifty were filled.
I spent a day and a half in Guam on the last leg of my travel. I stayed in one of the hotels in Tumon, the tourist town of Guam. The place looked like it saw about 20% or less of its regular customers. Although Guam had a large military population, cited in the MWR brochures as around 50,000, the crowd there before was not there. While in Guam, a friend from Guam said she’ll meet me at GPO for coffee. A Guam native, she walked in and looked around, and wondered out loud, “wow! The place is so empty! “ I was surprised to hear that from her, even though I had thought the same thing myself.
Now, what does this little trip report have to do with Palau? Well, the Philippines, as we all know, have millions of people, products, and services. Yet, we can visibly see the impact COVID has had on their economy and their people. Vietnam, while there, the exchange rate was around 24,000 dong to 1 USD. The cost of goods and services is quite low, making the destination attractive to travelers from Asia, Europe, and America. Visa can be issued at the airport or can be applied for and approved online for less than a hundred USD.
Guam, despite the large US military presence and US federal funding, is seeing perhaps a quarter of the visitor population that it had before.
All three countries visited on this short jaunt have one advantage in common, they serve as airline hubs. And with this advantage, they have yet to reach their pre-covid levels.
Economists now predict that Palau’s recovery may reach pre-covid levels by the year 2025. Looking at the recovery in Asia and the countries around us, I think it may be beyond 2025.
While our government seeks to open doors and connect airlines, realities on the ground, and regional and international recovery trends, present a more pessimistic outlook of our recovery.
On the ground, we have lost, I would estimate, around 300 of our youth to jobs outside of Palau in the last year alone. With me, on the flight out of Palau on November 23, were 20 young people from Babeldaob states, with nearly ten from Ngardmau. I asked where they were going, and one told me they were going to Tennessee, USA. They’ve been recruited to work there. The young lady further told me that they were the fourth group to leave and that there were three groups ahead of them, also around 20 in each group.
Individually, this is a good thing for these young people, but as a nation, our population has shrunk, further leaving the burden of a nation on the shoulders of the few.
An increase in the cost of transport, power, fuel, inflation, and restrictive regulations, is driving up prices and cutting down the businesses, further reducing the tax base and pricing us out of the market. A Korean or Taiwanese tourist deciding between going for a vacation in the resort town of Da Nang, Vietnam, or Koror, Palau, has an easy choice to make, where their money has more value.
A military tourist from Guam, deciding between Rota, Saipan, or Koror, Palau, for a four-day vacation, also faces the same choices.
To speed up the recovery, our government needs to look for outside-the-box solutions, relax some of the regulations, and encourage businesses, investors, and individuals to rebuild and help in our recovery.
Otherwise, we will be nowhere near recovered by 2025 and will need to borrow more money just to keep our basic government services operating, and probably laying off more employees or losing half of our population or both.