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Taiwan 'travel bubble' plan with Palau postponed

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TAIPEI (Taiwan News/Pacnews) —  A plan to create a travel bubble between Taiwan and Palau has been postponed because of the Pacific ally's decision to not relax quarantine rules for Taiwanese travelers, the Central Epidemic Command Center or CECC said Saturday.

The postponement was made after Palau took into account its epidemic prevention capacity and the northern half of the globe entering the winter when the coronavirus could surge, CECC spokesman Chuang Jen-hsiang said at a news briefing.

Health Minister Chen Shih-Chung, who also heads the CECC, explained that due to limited medical care capacity, Palau will still require Taiwanese visitors to undergo the current seven days of quarantine upon arrival.

Chen said Taiwan's Ministry of Transportation and Communications and related agencies are ready for the opening, but Palau's health care sector is worried that if an outbreak occurred after the opening, its limited resources would be unable to cope. The two countries had been in talks on the possibility of forming a so-called “travel bubble” to revive their tourism industries amid Covid-19 by allowing each side to open its border for their citizens to travel to the other side in tour groups.

Since both sides' populations are considered extremely low risk in terms of Covid-19, it was considered safe to do so. Under the planned travel bubble, travelers would have to present negative PCR test results to show they do not have Covid-19 before they would be allowed to join a travel group, according to Taiwan's Tourism Bureau.

By doing so, visitors from Palau would not need to undergo a compulsory 14-day quarantine for all arrivals to Taiwan, and Taiwanese visitors to Palau would not have to undergo the current seven-day quarantine, according to the proposed plan. However, Chen, who was speaking on the sidelines of the 2020 Global Health Forum in Taiwan, said it would be hard at this time to proceed with the "travel bubble" plan.

Chen said medical personnel in Palau remain concerned over the possible negative impact from the “travel bubble” program and the country needed more time to look into whether it should open up to Taiwanese tourists. There is only one hospital in Palau and it does not have the ability to treat patients in critical and emergency conditions, according to Taipei-based Shin-Kong Wu Ho-Su Memorial Hospital, which has an agreement with the Pacific country since 2008 to send its patients in critical and emergency conditions to Taiwan for treatment.

Palau has already relaxed rules for Taiwanese visitors because Taiwan is considered low risk.

Travelers from countries in the high and moderate risk groups, however, have to go through a 14-day self-health management period and then test negative for the virus before they depart for Palau, and after arriving in the Pacific country, they have to take two to three tests to confirm they are Covid-19-free and only then are they allowed to enter the country, Chen said. Taiwan also considers Palau to be low risk and has given visitors from the country the option of applying for a shortened quarantine period of seven days if they can show test results indicating they are Covid-19-free.

Chen said because Taiwan considers Palau a low-risk country and the two have formal diplomatic ties, it has wanted its ally to be the first in its “travel bubble” program at a time when the global travel industry has been hard hit by Covid-19.

He added that Taiwan will enter into talks with other countries on a possible “travel bubble” program, but will carefully study the situation in those countries before pushing for such an opening.

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