TAOYUAN, Taiwan (Reuters) – Taiwan opened its first travel bubble on Thursday during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the tourism-dependent small Pacific state of Palau providing a lifeline to a country in a region where China and the United States are fighting for influence.
Palau, less than four hours by plane from Taiwan, is one of 15 countries to maintain official diplomatic relations 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 recording any cases and the epidemic under control in Taiwan, Taipei accepted the “barren corridor” last month, although there are still checks, including tourists having to travel in groups and limited contact with the community. 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 it is a bold step. But it 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 of the bubble.
Some other global travel bubbles have come and gone as the pandemic has returned, or offer non-quarantined travel only in one direction, like from the Cook Islands to New Zealand.
The Pacific is the scene of a diplomatic standoff between Beijing and Washington, and in 2019, China uprooted two of Taiwan’s allies, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.
The United States has accused China of luring developing countries in the Pacific with generous loans, Beijing denies.
Taiwan has provided development assistance to Palau, including health care, and Bubble Flight also has a small team of doctors and nurses on board.
Yet for tourists hungry for on-board trips, it was an opportunity to finally return abroad.
“I’m really excited. I’ve been looking forward to this for ages,” said Choyce Kuo, 44.
Report by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Himani Sarkar