TAOYUAN, Taiwan (Reuters) – Taiwan opened its first travel bubble on Thursday during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the tourism-dependent small, peaceful state of Palau providing a lifeline to a country in a region where are China and the United States. strive for influence.
Palau, less than four hours by plane from Taiwan, is one of 15 countries to maintain formal diplomatic ties with the island claimed by China, and closing its borders last year to prevent the virus from d entering has seriously damaged its economy.
With Palau not having recorded any cases and the epidemic in Taiwan under control, Taipei accepted the “sterile corridor” last month, although there are still checks, including tourists having to travel in groups and limited contact with the local population.
Speaking at Taiwan’s main international airport in Taoyuan, outside Taipei, Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. said he was happy the bubble was starting.
“Many times we have to take bold action, and I think this is a bold step. But this is a very careful step and that is why we say we are opening Palau with care, ”he said, before boarding a China Airlines 737 plane to return home, accompanying the first group in the bubble.
Some other world travel bubbles have appeared and disappeared with the return of the pandemic, or only offer non-quarantined travel in one direction, such as from the Cook Islands to New Zealand.
The Pacific is the site of a diplomatic standoff between Beijing and Washington, and in 2019 China uprooted two of Taiwan’s allies, Kiribati, and the Solomon Islands there.
The United States has accused China of luring developing Pacific countries with generous loans, which Beijing denies.
Taiwan has provided development assistance to Palau, including health care, and the bubble flight also has a small team of doctors and nurses on board.
However, for tourists hungry for trips on board, it was an opportunity to finally go abroad.
“I’m really excited. I’ve been looking forward to this for ages,” said Choyce Kuo, 44.
Report by Ben Blanchard; Edited by Himani Sarkar