Story by Bernadette Carreon in Palau, with Catherine Graue

Palau’s incumbent President Tommy Remengesau Junior is retiring leaving the top job up for grabs in the November election and the reopening of the small Pacific island country’s borders to tourists will be a central issue.

It is a crucial time for Palau, given its economy is highly dependent on tourism, with the President last week telling the United Nations General Assembly that “private sector unemployment is approaching 50 per cent”.

“It will take years to recover what we have lost in months,” he said.

Palau’s borders remain closed because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, apart from flights bringing in essential travellers.

Many voters are happy for that to remain the case, but the two Presidential candidates are both proposing they re-open in some capacity — and a longstanding ally, Taiwan, is set to be first in line.

Four Presidential candidates ran in the first round of voting and while the official results are expected to be announced this week, two have already conceded.

It’s left Palau’s current Vice President Raynold Oilouch to face off against Surangel Whipps Jr, who’s trying again after running unsuccessfully four years ago.

The next, and final, round of voting for the Presidential election will be on November 3, held in conjunction with the parliamentary election.

Vice President Raynold Oilouch says his priority is to keep Palau COVID-free

“I am realistic that Palau can’t continue to close its borders forever.”

“We need to find way to slowly open borders, especially with the countries that we know are safe, as far as COVID-19 is concerned. So at the moment, the only place that is pretty strong in terms of preventing COVID-19, is Taiwan,” he said.

That is in line with the current’s government policy, with the incumbent President Tommy Remengesau Junior hinting they are negotiating a “bubble” with Taiwan.

“Taiwan, a public health leader that has implemented one of world’s most effective pandemic responses…the effectiveness of Taiwan’s control over the pandemic has been recognized by many others, and if included in international health coordination mechanisms, can also share these lessons with the rest of the world,” President Remengesau told the United Nations General Assembly last week.

“As such, Taiwan is one of the only places on earth that is safe enough for quarantine-free travel with COVID-free nations like Palau. And we are currently working together to create the world’s first safe bubble economy,” he said.

Surangel Whipps Jr also supports the idea of a travel bubble with Taiwan, although both men say they will listen to the advice of health authorities.

But in the longer term, Senator Whipps is promising to reduce Palau’s reliance on the tourism sector.

“If you want successful country, you need good health care, you need good education, you need a strong workforce, you need justice and then you build strong economy…What are the elements that can help Palau with what we’re facing…we need to diversify. Healthcare is an economy we can pursue, also education but then there’s no question, we need to invest in agriculture and aquaculture,” he said.