Taiwan's tourism industry hopes for relaxed border controls in a few months' time

With borders largely shut to foreign travellers, Taiwan's tourist hotspots and businesses have had to rely on local visitors. PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI - Mr Tseng Ying-chi has not gone to work in nearly two years. Before the pandemic, the 37-year-old was a tour guide who led groups of Taiwanese tourists through Europe, and was overseas for more than 200 days a year.

Now, he is waiting for the government to relax border and travel restrictions so that tour groups from Taiwan can travel abroad again.

He has been spending time exploring the island and dabbling in the stock market.

"I've enjoyed this year travelling all around Taiwan and even going to all of its outlying islands, but I don't see the border control being beneficial in the long run. The government's goal to keep daily Covid cases to zero is unrealistic," said Mr Tseng, who added that many of his colleagues are doing side jobs as food delivery staff.

Taiwan has sealed off its borders to tourists except those from the tiny Pacific nation of Palau and a majority of business travellers since Covid-19 breached its doors last year. The first major local outbreaks in May this year saw tighter restrictions for residents and Taiwanese returning from overseas.

The rules are still in place even though daily case numbers have dropped to mostly single digits. With a slow vaccination roll-out, the health authorities remain cautious. All Taiwanese returning from overseas must still go through a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a hotel or facility.

With borders largely shut to foreign travellers, Taiwan's tourist hotspots and businesses have had to rely on local visitors. But despite a quick uptick in local tourist numbers last year after Covid-19 outbreaks were under control, the year still saw an NT$45 billion (S$2.18 billion) drop in Taiwanese tourist spending compared with 2019, the Tourism Bureau said.

According to Mr Huang Wei-chen, director of the Ministry of Labour's Department of Labour Standards and Equal Employment, Taiwan saw a growth in the number of furloughed workers after the local tourism industry, including travel agencies like the one where Mr Tseng worked, was hit hard by the pandemic.

Travel Agent Association chairman Yao Ta-kuang estimated that in last year alone, Taiwan's tourism sector - including travel agencies, transportation companies and restaurants - suffered a loss of NT$400 billion.

Mr Wu Sheng-ta, whose family owns a tour bus company that previously catered to many Chinese and Japanese tourists in Kaohsiung, said: "We've had to lay off several of our drivers because no more foreign tourists are coming."

Even as nearby Asian countries set up two-way travel lanes that allow vaccinated visitors to forgo quarantine, there is still no sign of Taiwan's health authorities allowing more foreign visitors besides those from its travel bubble with Palau, which has only eight confirmed Covid-19 cases so far and no deaths.

Some companies have also urged the government to ease its strict border measures that they say are hurting the running of their businesses. For example, after-school tuition centres are unable to get foreign teachers into Taiwan.

Tourists pose next to a flower field in Pingzhen District, Taiwan, on Nov 4, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

But the authorities have said that adjustments in border control hinge on the island's vaccination rate.

Taiwan's vaccine roll-out has been slower than that of countries in the region due to an initial struggle to obtain enough vaccines and long waiting periods between shipments. Currently, some 74 per cent of Taiwanese have received at least one shot of Covid-19 vaccine, and about 30 per cent have received both shots.

Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, who also heads the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC), said last month: "We will be discussing opening borders only when over 70 per cent of the population have received (at least) one dose and 60 per cent have had both shots."

CECC's Deputy Director-General Chuang Jen-hsiang said on Thursday (Nov 5) that he believes Taiwan can reach the goal of fully vaccinating 60 per cent of its people by the year end.

His comments have raised hopes among those in the tourism industry.

"Many travel agencies are already talking to their counterparts overseas to be ready to launch tours soon," said Mr Tseng.

National Taiwan University's professor of public health Chen Hsiu-hsi suggested allowing travellers from countries with extremely low Covid-19 numbers and a high vaccination rate to skip quarantine in Taiwan.

"If a country has a vaccination rate of over 70 per cent, then we can consider giving it a 'green light pass', and for low-risk countries with a 40 per cent to 70 per cent vaccination rate, it might be possible to cut back on their time in quarantine," he added.

Mr Tseng predicted that the health authorities will wait until after Chinese New Year to see if all the festive gatherings and outings will bring a new bout of outbreaks.

"If numbers (of Covid-19 cases) remain low, then it's possible that border restrictions will ease," he said.

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