Excited tourists depart Taiwan on inaugural ‘bubble flight’ to Palau

Taipei-The inaugural flight in a “travel bubble” arrangement between Taiwan and Palau took off from Taoyuan on Thursday, carrying 100 exuberant tourists, as well as Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. and his delegation.

Many of the tourists on the China Airlines (CAL) flight said that more than anything else, they were excited about the water activities in Palau, on the first commercial trip to the Pacific island country since Taiwan closed its borders to inbound and outbound group tours on March 19 last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the passengers Eleanor Jiang (??) said she was looking forward to visiting Palau’s popular attractions, including the Milky Way and Jellyfish Lake, which have views that cannot be found in Taiwan.

Jiang said that although the four-day tour was somewhat expensive, costing her NT$70,000 (US$2,485), it was worth it, as she was one of the tourists to take the inaugural trip under the Taiwan-Palau “travel bubble” arrangement.

Some of the other passengers in the tour group said they had packed many outfits in preparation for their vacation photos in Palau, to capture treasured memories.

In compliance with the regulations of the bubble arrangement, the 100 tourists checked in at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport at 9 a.m., more than five hours before the scheduled departure, and were tested for COVID-19.

Travel blogger Danny Wen (???), who was part of the tour group, said he was pleased at the level of professionalism displayed by the medical workers at the airport.

“The test was simple and non-stressful, and (the medical workers) were quicker, gentler and more efficient than my ENT doctor,” he said.

At noon, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) announced that all the members of the tour group had tested negative, and boarding began at 2:39 p.m.

Meanwhile, President Whipps and his 22-member delegation, who were on a five-day state visit to Taiwan to launch the first travel bubble in the Asia-Pacific region, also took the CAL flight, which departed at 3:18 p.m. after some delay.

Before his departure, Whipps said he was happy to see the launch of the travel bubble program between the two diplomatic allies.

“This was a long process in the planning, but the day has finally arrived,” he said, adding that his visit to Taiwan was fruitful, as a new partnership was forged.

In a meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen (???) during his stay, Whipps said, they came to a lot of good conclusions and discussed ideas on how to deepen and expand the bilateral relationship.

“We encourage any airline from Taiwan to fly to Palau,” Whipps said. “Because of our strong relationship, we want many visitors from Taiwan to come to Palau.”

The return CAL flight from Palau is scheduled for April 4, after which the airline will operate two round-trip flights per week — on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

CAL is using its 158-seater Boeing 737-800 aircraft on the Palau-Taiwan route but has limited the passenger number to 110 per flight.

Tour operators in Taiwan, however, have expressed concern about the sustainability of the market, under the new arrangement.

According to the six Taiwanese travel agencies offering the group packages to Palau, their first few tours are fully booked, but beyond that the bookings are currently under 50 percent.

The main factors contributing to the poor sales are the high cost of the tour packages, the relatively late announcement of the travel bubble launch date, and the complicated restrictions and quarantine procedures under the program, according to Yu Kuo-chen (???), spokesperson for one of Taiwan’s largest travel agencies Lion Travel.

Tour operators said they hope the government can loosen some of the restrictions to attract more travelers.

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel