"Energized and Excited," Palau welcomes tourists after a year of COVID-19 border closure
KOROR- Palau’s President Surangel Whipps Jr. said he is “ energized and excited” by the arrival of nearly 100 tourists in Palau for the first travel bubble with Taiwan.
On April 1, Palau opened its border to tourists after a year of COVID-19 related closure.
Escorting the 100 tourists from Taiwan back to Palau, the president sees the travel bubble as a "ray of light" from the pandemic that devastated its tourism-reliant economy.
President Surangel Whipps Jr. speaking to masked tourists from Taiwan. Photo by Richard W. Brooks
This makes us feel that we can make it through this. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It's beginning to get better and we can fight this pandemic," he told the tourists.
"It should not cripple us, it should not hold us back. We should keep striving to move forward -- you being here begins that journey,” he said.
Palau is one of the few remaining places on Earth which has zero COVID-19 cases.
With its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan and the United States, the president said the bubble was made possible.
Taiwan has been hailed for its successful response to the virus. While the country has reported case, it has contained community transmission.
The bubble however comes with strict restrictions, including a negative COVID-19 test from tourists before their flight and restricting them to tour groups and minimal interaction with the local community.
Whipps said while the restrictions might be an inconvenience for now, he said it will keep both tourists and the people in Palau safe.
"I know it's uncomfortable but it's about keeping people safe," he said.
Whipps plans to eventually expand the two time a week flight to 16 flights a week on the route.
This bubble, he said is a lifeline for the economy.
The trip also saw a strengthened partnership with the US and Taiwan.
US ambassador to Palau, John Hennessey-Niland, was part of Whipps’ delegation to Taiwan.
"It's important we show the world how strong this partnership is," Whipps said.
Whipps thanked Hennessey-Niland for taking part in the momentous event, especially showing US grat
itude over the delivery of vaccines in Palau.
Palau has one of the strongest vaccination program in the world, with almost 50 percent of its 18,000 population having been partially vaccinated since March.
Whipps said with the US help, Palau is on its way to achieving herd immunity.
"(We) are grateful for the partnership and the generosity of the US government, which provided the vaccine doses to Palau to make this sterile travel corridor possible," he said.