As Palau continues to anticipate opening a travel bubble before the end of the month, businesses are preparing for some return of international tourism, as well as taking precautions against COVID.

At the Presidential Press Conference this Wednesday, President Surangel Whipps Jr. said that he is hopeful the tourism bubble between Palau and Taiwan will open shortly after his long-anticipated goal of March 15.

“We’re ready, Taiwan,” President Whipps said, stressing that Palau is waiting on Taiwan to open its doors to Palau. However, in light of Taiwan’s track record of keeping COVID cases minimal, including controlling a small outbreak of local transmissions earlier this year, the President has said that Taiwan seems to be responding positively to the idea of opening the bubble soon.

While the President has said that Taiwan and Palau are taking every precaution to prevent a COVID import, the President has continually stressed that “COVID is here to stay”.

Right now, having finished vaccinating government frontline workers, the Ministry of Health is still mostly limiting its vaccinations to the elderly or those with underlying medical conditions, who are most at-risk from COVID-infection. But, with the importation of the anticipated 8,800 doses to arrive this Sunday, along with a team of medical personnel from the US Department of Health and Human Services to help in the vaccination effort, the President has said that he hopes to start mass vaccinations of non-government frontline workers, such as those working in the tourism industry and retail.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Tourism (BOT) has trained representatives from an estimated 190 tourism-related businesses last week in its new Pandemic Safety Certification program. Representatives came from businesses including accommodation, food establishments, tour operations, boat owners, car rentals, state governments, retail, banks, and museums. However, the BOT says that it is planning another week of trainings for those tourism-related companies which missed last week’s trainings.

Right now, companies which attended the trainings are preparing for spot-checks, by putting the systems and supplies in place which are required by the regulations. After successfully undergoing the spot-check, businesses will receive their certifications. The BOT says that it hopes to have the majority of these businesses certified by this weekend, and to provide the additional trainings for tour companies which missed the trainings shortly after.

“Our goal is that, if Palau’s doors open in two weeks, our entire tourism industry will be ready,” said Mr. Fabian Iyar of BOT.

According to the National Pandemic Safety Regulations signed into law by former President Remengesau last November, any tourism-related company, including accommodations, food establishments, and tour operators, must be certified by BOT’s program in order to accommodate international tourists, or risk paying fines.

Following certifications of tourism-related companies, the BOT hopes to conduct similar trainings for the retail sector, since visitors are likely to visit markets and stores as well.  

While the proposed two flights a week to kickstart the travel bubble is hardly a full return of Palau’s tourism industry, it is still likely welcome news to many tourism companies in Palau, many of which have reduced staff and hours, and some of which have closed altogether.

Some tourism-businesses, such as Cruise Control Dive Center, have successfully shifted to a local customer base throughout the lockdown period, while others have remained closed or struggled to remain open. Smaller dive operators have been forced to keep doors closed while waiting for a return of international clientele.

The same struggle is being felt in Palau’s hotels. Palau Pacific Resort (PPR), one of Palau’s largest companies, opened its doors this past January to a limited reopening of two days a week, Friday and Saturday, after closing its rooms and food and beverages services in June 2020. While the local customer base is not enough to fuel its operating costs, the five-star resort is waiting for a more steady return of international tourism before fully reopening.

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