Taiwan opens first travel bubble, with tourism-dependent Palau

TAOYUAN, Taiwan (Reuters) - Taiwan opened its first travel bubble during the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, with the small, tourism-dependent Pacific state of Palau, offering a lifeline to a country in a region where China and the United States are battling for influence.

Palau, less than four hours by plane from Taiwan, is one of only 15 countries to maintain formal diplomatic ties with the Chinese-claimed island, and the closing of its borders last year to keep the virus out has severely hurt its economy.

With Palau recording no cases and the outbreak under control in Taiwan, Taipei agreed to the “sterile corridor” last month, though there are still controls, including tourists having to travel in a group and limited contact with local people.

Speaking at Taiwan’s main international airport at Taoyuan, outside of Taipei, Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. said he was pleased the bubble was starting.

“Many times we need to take bold steps, and I think this is a bold step. But it’s a very careful step and that’s why we say we’re opening Palau with care,” he said, before boarding a China Airlines 737 jet back home, accompanying the first group in the bubble.

Some other global travel bubbles have come and gone as the pandemic roared back, or offer quarantine-free travel only in one direction, like from the Cook Islands to New Zealand.

The Pacific is the site of a diplomatic tug-of-war between Beijing and Washington, and in 2019 China snatched away two of Taiwan’s allies there, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.

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The United States has accused China of enticing developing Pacific nations with generous loans, charges Beijing denies.

Taiwan has provided development aid to Palau, including healthcare, and the bubble flight also has a small team of doctors and nurses aboard.

Still, for the travel-starved tourists on board it was an opportunity to finally go abroad again.

“I’m so excited. I’ve been looking forward to this for ages,” said Choyce Kuo, 44.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Himani Sarkar