There are 10 nations that have escaped the pandemic so far. Of course, the economic losses are considerable
Until 1982, the remote and paradisiacal islands of Palau did not have any hotels.
That year the first tourist accommodation was inaugurated and since then, this country, surrounded by the celestial waters of the Pacific Ocean, has enjoyed the boom in tourism.
In 2019 90,000 tourists arrived in Palau, five times the population total.
According to data collected by the IMF (International Monetary Fund), in 2017 tourism represented the 40% of the country’s GDP.
But that was before COVID pandemic-19.
Palau’s borders have been closed since the end of March and it is one of 10 countries of the world without cases confirmed (counting only full UN member countries and excluding North Korea and Turkmenistan).
However, although not a single case has been recorded, the virus has somehow devastated the country.
Hotels are closed, restaurants are empty, and souvenir shops don’t sell anything.
The the only guests the hotels now have they are the residents who return to the island and are obliged to quarantine.
Countries with no registered cases of COVID-19
- Marshall Islands
- Solomon Islands
“The ocean here is so much more beautiful than anywhere else in the world,” says Brian Lee, manager and co-owner of Hotel Palau.
It’s the azure ocean that kept Brian busy.
Before the pandemic, its 54 rooms had a occupancy from 70% to 80%.
But when the borders were closed, there was nothing to turn to.
“It is a small country, so it is normal for local people not to stay in Palau,” says Brian.
The hotel has about 20 employees and has supported all of them, albeit on reduced hours.
“I try to find them work doing other chores like maintenance, renovation, etc ”, he says.
However, empty hotels cannot be maintained or renovated forever.
“I can be like this for another half year,” says Brian.
“But then it will likely have to close.”
Brian does not blame the government, which has offered financial support to residents and, after all, has kept away the virus.
“I think they have done a good job,” he says.
And yet, for the first hotel in Palau to survive, something has to change soon.
The president recently announced that “essential” air travel could resume on September 1.
Meanwhile, there have been rumors that it would be an “air corridor” with Taiwan that would allow the visit of tourists.
But for Brian, the move could come too late.
“I think they have to start reopening again. Maybe we can have travel bubbles with New Zealand and neighboring countries, ”he says.
“Otherwise, no one can survive here.”
The case of the Marshall Islands
About 4,000 km east across the vast Pacific Ocean, the Marshall Islands also remain covid free-19.
But, like Palau, not having cases has also had an impact.
The Robert Reimers Hotel sits on a strip of land on the main atoll, Majuro, with a lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other.
Before the pandemic, all 37 rooms had an occupancy of 75% to 88%.
Their guests came mainly from Asia, the Pacific or “the continent” (United States).
Since the borders were closed in early March, occupancy has fallen to between 3% and 5%.
“Some of our guests come from the outer islands,” says Sophia Fowler, who works for the hotel group.
“But not many”.
At the national level, it is expected that the country loses more than 700 jobs in the post-covid recession, the biggest drop since 1997.
Of these, 258 will be in the hotel and restaurant sector.
But self-isolation affects sectors beyond tourism, and the Marshall Islands they depend much less on tourists than Palau.
The problem for these islands is the fishing industry.
To keep the country free from covid-19, ships that have been in infected countries have prohibited to enter its ports.
Other ships, including fuel tankers and container ships, must spend 14 days at sea before docking.
Fishing licenses are suspended and the number of cargo flights.
The effect is clear.
The Marshall Islands specialize in aquarium fish, the most popular being the llama angelfish, but exports fell 50%, according to a US report.
The shipment of tuna sashimi was reduced by the same amount.
Other fishing industries expect a 30% drop during the year.
In short, you can keep the virus out of the country, but fighting its effects on the economy is different.
So in the end COVID-19 drags you one way or another.
Sophia Fowler “hopes” that things will return to normal for the country and the Robert Reimers Hotel next year.
But what if they don’t?
“Then it won’t be a viable project,” he says.
But although the closing of the borders has impoverished countries without cases covid, not everyone wants to get out of confinement.
Dr. Len Tarivonda is the director of public health for Vanuatu, another Pacific island with a population of 300,000.
Although he works in the capital, Port Vila, he is from Ambae, an island of 10,000 inhabitants about 275 kilometers to the north.
“Most of the inhabitants [de Ambae] prefers that the border remains closed as long as possible ”, he says.
“They say, ‘We don’t want disease to come. If it happens, we are basically doomed. ‘
About 80% of Vanuatu’s population lives outside the cities and the “formal economy,” says Tarivonda.
“And I think they don’t necessarily feel the rush yet. They are subsistence farmers, they grow their own food, they depend on the local and traditional economy ”.
However, the country will suffer.
The Asian Development Bank hopes that GDP falls by almost 10%, Vanuatu’s biggest drop since independence in 1980.
But that setback is not only due to the closure of borders by covid-19.
In April, tropical cyclone Harold it struck much of the country, killing three people and affecting more than half the population.
“We had daily briefings on health emergency operations,” Tarivonda recalls.
“First we would discuss covid, then cyclone Harold. Two disasters at the same time ”.
However, the pandemic will have a more lasting impact.
In July, the government announced that it had plans to reopen the border to other “safe” countries before September 1.
But as cases increase in Australia and New Zealand, the plan began to be delayed.
Tarivonda, who is part of the border working group along with government, tourism and airline officials, admits that they are “almost back to where they started” and they do not have a new date for reopening.
The cross border travel smaller ones can help Vanuatu.
The most recent example is when the government allowed 172 workers to travel to Australia’s Northern Territory for six months to pick mangoes.
Although remittances helpedin in the economic situation, they are not enough in a country where 35% of GDP comes from tourism.
But despite that need to reopen the borders, Vanuatu will not rush to do so.
Dr. Tarivonda recalls with concern the case of Papua New Guinea, which was nearly covid-free until a sharp increase in late July.
“If the virus enters the country, it will probably be like a wildfire, and what we are seeing in Papua New Guinea reflects why we are concerned,” he says.
“Given our limitations [de atención médica]and the context we have in the Pacific, the best option is to keep the virus out of our country for as long as possible ”.
As the months go by, despair grows in the closed countries of the Pacific.
However, Jonathan Pryke, Director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowry Institute, you have no doubt that the only option for these countries is the self-isolation.
“Even if they kept their borders open, their main Australian and New Zealand tourism markets would not be open as they have closed their own borders,” he says.
“So we would have only gotten the worst of both worlds: a health crisis and an economic crisis. We will have years and years to see what the correct decisions were “.
“But looking back, no one doubts that shutting down was the right move for these Pacific countries,” concludes Pryke.
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