Over 100 tourists have descended on Palau to kick off the first travel bubble with Taiwan, with President Surangel Whipps Junior, accompanying them on the flight.
Whipps returned to Palau on the Thursday night flight after a four-day visit to Taiwan where he encouraged potential tourists to spend there holidays in the Covid-free Pacific nation.
The flight was the first of a twice-a-week arrangement between Palau and Taiwan which Whipps hoped to be the "shot in the arm' the country's economy needed.
A vaccination programme in Palau is a one key contributing factor to the decision to slowly open up to tourists.
Whipps said Palau was on its way to reaching herd immunity with at least half of its 18,000 population partially vaccinated by the end of March.
"For Palau, we got our shot in the arm with the vaccine, by allowing the tourists to come in we have a shot in the arm with our economy, and that's very important," Whipps said.
Whipps' visit to Taiwan was also historic as he was the first foreign head of state to visit Taiwan since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
At a cost of up to $US2800, tourists would be able to go on a holiday in Palau and snorkel at the Rock Islands but were restricted from mingling with the community.
The first Palau -Taiwan travel bubble kicked off last night with 100 tourists descending at the airport. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this much tourists in a year . #travelbubble #covid19 #Tourism pic.twitter.com/JxL45GyG1N— bernadette carreon (@carreondet) April 1, 2021
Visitors would be required to test negative for coronavirus hours before boarding the plane.
In his meeting with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen earlier in the week, Whipps said while the Covid-19 tests and the requirement for tourists to be at the airport five hours ahead of departure might be an inconvenience for now, he said it was being done for both the safety of visitors and the Palauan people.
If proven successful, the flights and visitor numbers were expected to increase.
Whipps thanked Taiwan and the United States for making the bubble possible and keeping Palau Covid-free.
"Taiwan and the United States have both provided Palau with personal protective equipment, testing supplies and equipment, and expert technical assistance throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Since January 2021, the United States has been providing Covid-19 vaccines to Palau. But the partnership between Taiwan, Palau, and the United States is not limited to public health or pandemic management," Whipps said in a statement.
The trip in Taiwan also showed a strong relationship between Palau, Taiwan and the United States, with US Ambassador John Hennessey- Niland joining the president's delegation.
"This visit by President Whipps, accompanied by US Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland, reaffirms our commitment to strengthening US-Taiwan-Palau cooperation by promoting democracy and good governance, countering climate change, advancing digital health, fostering women's empowerment, promoting agricultural trade, strengthening coast guard cooperation, and enhancing Palau's cybersecurity," the statement added.
On his trip to Kaohsiung, Taiwan during the week, Whipps told the media that he was also looking forward to seeing direct flights from the city.
Kaohsiung is the largest port city in Taiwan, and Whipps said the visit there would provide Palau new ideas opportunities to revitalise the country's economy from interstate transportation, marina facilities to aquaculture.
He said the mayor was also planning to forge a sister city agreement with Koror State, the capital city of Palau.
Tsai said she was promoting Palau as a safe destination to the Taiwanese people.
She said the travel bubble would set a precedent world-wide on how safe travel could be done.
"Together we will show the world that this model for safe travel will be feasible as the pandemic subsides," Tsai said.
She said she was also looking forward to visiting Palau again.
In Palau, social media comments raised concerns about whether the community needed to wear masks from now on, with the opening of the borders to tourists.
Senator Umiich Sengebau expressed confidence regarding the travel bubble, especially those coming from low-risk areas like Taiwan.
"I feel we have all the pieces in place so we can begin to welcome visitors.
It would be a different situation if they are coming from other places considering we haven't reached herd immunity of 80 percent of the population. I feel very confident with Taiwan's ability to ensure they won't accidentally introduce Covid-19 to Palau," he said.
Speaking on arrival back in Palau, Surangel Whipps said he was very happy this day had finally come.
"This is the first sterile travel corridor in the world between two Covid-free / Covid-safe countries, and I'm very proud of the work Palau and Taiwan have done to get us here.
"Taiwan is the perfect partner for this safe travel corridor. Not only because of their success in combating Covid-19, but also because Taiwanese travellers treat Palau's people, environment, and culture with respect when they visit. Our two nations trust each other - hence why we are able to have zero-quarantine at both borders."
The president also acknowledged the Ministry of Health, the Palau Visitors Authority, the Bureau of Tourism, border protection officers and all front liners for their efforts to make it possible.