Searches for information about Palau dramatically surged in Hong Kong and Taiwan amid international controversy about the demise of Palau Pacific Airways, Palau`s top tourist airline in terms of passenger numbers.

Restrictions against group tourism to Palau enforced by authorities in Xi Jinping`s Peoples’ Republic of China have been widely cited as a factor in the airline deciding to suspend operations and end the lease of its sole airplane, effective August 31st.

Cyber-experts use the term Streisand Effect to describe a scenario where attempts to suppress or censor information inadvertently lead to that information gaining far wider exposure.

When communist officials in mainland China began enforcing a ban on group tours to Palau, they are unlikely to have anticipated that their repressive, behind-the-scenes measures would actually bring Palau more exposure as a tourist destination. But just as Hollywood celebrity Barbara Streisand`s one-time efforts to suppress photos of her luxurious sea-side mansion turned out to be phenomenally counter-productive, Xi Jinping`s communist authorities may have scored an own-goal with their heavy-handed efforts to reduce tourism to Palau.

Statistics provided by leading internet search engine Google shows remarkable increases in searches for the Chinese word for Palau, 帛琉, both in Hong Kong and Taiwan (Republic of China) over the course of last week.

The case of Palau Pacific Airways was at the time receiving headline coverage in Hong Kong as well as in Taiwanese newspapers, and even featured on broadcast television in Taiwan.

Google Trends data shows that the search term 帛琉 (Palau) reached a peak popularity level, namely 100/100 index popularity points, on July 18th in Taiwan, and on July 19th in Hong Kong.

In the days prior to that, before the demise of Palau Pacific Airways became a media sensation, interest in the same search term had been low, hovering at between 1/100 to 5/100 index popularity points.  Coinciding with the high-levels of interest by the general public, some Taiwan-based media outlets even produced laudatory articles containing details about Palau`s tourist attractions, it’s diving opportunities and natural wonders.

It is unclear to what extent increased Taiwanese and Hong-Kong interest in Palau as a tourist destination will lead to Palau receiving a higher number of visitors from those countries. However, if there is an increase of visitors as a result of the spike in Google searches for Palau, it wouldn’t be the first time that Google Trends online have fuelled real-life, offline developments: After the United Kingdom`s referendum decision to leave the European Union, high levels of online searches for details on how to obtain Irish citizenship translated into an increase of than 70% in the number of naturalisation applications in Ireland several months later; Brits dissatisfied with the referendum result, it appeared, had acted on the information they found online and sought ways to obtain a second citizenship in an EU-member state in a last-ditch bid to personally remain EU citizens even after Brexit.

Not everyone, though, was taken in by the media storm surrounding Palau. Peoples` Republic of China Foreign Ministry officials claimed to be unaware of the controversy surrounding Palau Pacific Airways`s suspension of operations. When asked about the case by a reporter, PRC Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying told a press conference in Beijing last week “I am not aware of the situation you mentioned”, according to an official transcript of his comments.

The recent storm of media attention surrounding Palau may bring new tourists. But the extent to which this can compensate for any losses Palau will incur as a result of the airline crisis remains to be seen. (Colin C. Cortbus)