For Taiwan tourism, frustration as island misses global reopening | coronavirus pandemic

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Taipei, Taiwan – Before the pandemic, Taipei’s Yongkang Street was a top tourist destination, welcoming visitors who munched on spring onion pancakes, bubble tea and mango ice cream between gift shops and boutiques top of the line.

The area was so popular that iconic Taiwanese restaurant chain Din Tai Fung opened a second location across from its flagship store to handle demand for its dumplings.

These days, “for rent” signs and empty storefronts are commonplace in the neighborhood.

After more than two years of closed borders, times are tough for small Taiwanese businesses that once relied on tourists for much of their revenue. While Yongkang Street still attracts locals on weekends, they often have different tastes than foreign tourists banned from the island since March 2020.

Shaun Yu, owner of Lai Hao gift shop on a Yongkang side street, said he was forced to close two of his three locations – the last one opened in late 2019 when his shop was a popular destination for tourists looking for memories. .

“After Taiwan closed the border, my business dropped by about 85%,” Yu told Al Jazeera, explaining that he was forced to lay off two-thirds of his staff.

Before the collapse of tourism, Yu could earn NTD 200,000 ($6,894) a month just from a single corner of the store that sold Taiwanese branded handkerchiefs – a popular gift, he said, for Japanese tourists to report to their colleagues. The figure these days, Yu said, is around NTD 1,000 ($34).

Yu said that while he was somewhat encouraged by recent signs that Taiwan is considering slowly easing its pandemic controls, conditions are still far from where they need to be for his business to thrive. restore.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has signaled the self-governing island will gradually move away from a ‘zero-COVID’ policy [File: Chiang Ying-ying/AP]

Although Taipei has signaled it will move away from its long-standing “zero-COVID” policy, the government has not set any timetable for fully reopening its borders.

The self-governing island’s continued isolation makes it a rarity in a region that, with the exception of China and Japan, has all but abandoned border controls as a defense against the virus.

As vaccination rates have increased — nearly 80% of Taiwanese are double-vaccinated and about half have received three shots — authorities have eased some border restrictions. Foreign professionals, students and family members of citizens have been gradually allowed to return since last year, but authorities have not announced plans for the return of tourists and tour groups.

All arrivals must also undergo 10 days of quarantine, a hurdle for occasional and short-term business travelers that is at odds with the quarantine-free arrival offered in nearly all of its Asian peers.

Health authorities have discussed reducing the quarantine to three days at some undetermined point in the future, although tourism watchers are skeptical that this would be enough to bring visitors back in droves.

Although still largely unaffected by COVID-19 compared to the rest of the world, Taiwan is currently experiencing its worst outbreak in nearly a year, reporting 874 local cases as of Thursday. Last week, President Tsai Ing-wen said on Facebook that, rather than elimination, Taiwan’s goal going forward would be zero severe cases and a controlled number of mild or asymptomatic cases.

In 2019, most Taiwanese tourists came from neighboring Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, according to government data, with an average length of stay of 6.2 nights, making any length of quarantine a failure. likely for most visitors.

Health authorities have indicated that the quarantine will remain in some form for the foreseeable future, suggesting in public comments that the duration could be lowered to three days at an unspecified later date.

Political and psychological change

For Taiwan, reopening will require significant political and psychological change. The East Asian democracy has seen some of the lowest case and death rates in the world for much of the pandemic, and has also seen cases surge elsewhere as restrictions were lifted.

Still, some locals have begun to wonder why the self-governing island is so far behind the rest of the world in returning to normalcy.

For Kelly Khiew, a Singaporean climbing guide based outside Taipei, any change to Taiwan’s current policy is welcome.

“I think at a very fundamental level before talking about quarantine, they should open their borders to the general public,” Khiew told Al Jazeera. “I have friends, relatives and also clients who leave me messages. They hope to visit Taiwan, not only for climbing but also as a tourist destination. I think the interest is still there, it’s just that the borders are closed to everyone.

Since the start of 2020, Khiew and her husband have had to reinvent the business model of their company, Qzadventures Rock Guides, from organizing trips for Singaporeans and expats to visit Taiwan to wooing local rock climbers and foreigners.

Khiew said their income dropped sharply as they found themselves competing with other outdoor sports. To make up for the shortfall, she resumed distance learning on weekdays while her husband works in Singapore.

Khiew acknowledged that not everyone in Taiwan feels the same as those in the tourism industry, not least because tourism contributes less to the economy than in many other parts of Asia. Taiwan recorded gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 6.8% in 2021, the highest in a decade, thanks to the strong performance of its technology and export industries.

“In the past two years when the borders were closed, Taiwan’s economy was doing very well and better than before, so there is no pressure to open the borders,” she said. . “The stigma among locals is that the virus is very scary.”

Taiwanese have also observed the spiraling death rate in Hong Kong following an outbreak fueled by the Omicron variant, a finding blamed on poor vaccination among the elderly. Taiwan has faced the same challenge with its elderly population, which has been hesitant to get vaccinated for fear of life-threatening side effects.

C Jason Wang, a professor of pediatrics and health policy at Stanford University who has studied Taiwan’s pandemic response, said the island should be able to weather the latest outbreak without deaths if authorities health facilities can increase immunization rates among older people.

Taiwan has a respected healthcare system with intensive care capacity comparable to Germany and Canada, and Taiwanese now need to “have the courage to step forward into the future”, Wang told Al Jazeera.

“It means recognizing that the focus should be on preventing deaths by preventing the spread of the virus, as Omicron is both highly contagious and often asymptomatic,” he said.

Even as cases have increased in Taiwan, deaths have remained low, with only 854 deaths reported since 2020, according to government data.

“Taiwanese are used to getting a perfect score on their exam – zero COVID for 200 days – but it’s like going to college,” Wang said. “You won’t get 100 in college because the problem sets are different.”

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