A New Normal, but Not for All

Given an exponential rise in locally transmitted COVID-19 case numbers (the vast majority of which have been mild or asymptomatic), Taiwan’s leaders have quickly begun working to develop a policy of “coexisting with the virus.” As during the initial outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, some fumbles have occurred as that policy coalesces, but once again private sector actors, community organizations, and the public have jumped in to help make the transition more bearable for those affected. 

In April, the requirement that most people infected locally with COVID-19 isolate in a quarantine hotel or center was changed in seven cities to home quarantine. In addition, quarantine for close contacts of confirmed cases has been reduced from 10 days to three (plus four more days of self-health management). And following a mid-April run on at-home rapid test kits, the company that produces them domestically announced it would not only cut their prices but would also significantly ramp up production over the coming weeks. The government will also implement a real-name distribution plan for rapid tests, like the one rolled out for masks in 2020.

Meanwhile, however, this new normal does not appear to apply to international travel. All non-resident foreign visitors are still prohibited from entering Taiwan except under special circumstances. And those residents who do arrive – even those who have received a full course of the COVID vaccine – must still endure multiple PCR tests and seven days of strictly enforced quarantine. When it comes to visitors and those returning from abroad, Taiwan is maintaining a zero-COVID strategy. 

While the experience for international arrivals could at most be described as an inconvenience, for others such as airline flight crews, Taiwan’s rigid border controls have taken a much higher toll. According to an April 27 feature story in the Taipei Times, these workers – pilots in particular – have been “stuck in an unending cycle of work and quarantine for more than two years,” a situation that has “completely disrupted their lives and left them feeling isolated.”

In pure economic terms, nowhere has the impact of border restrictions been felt more than in Taiwan’s embattled tourism industry. While the effects of a total absence of international travelers were for a period partially alleviated by a marked rise in domestic tourism as travel-hungry Taiwanese leapt at any opportunity for a getaway or “staycation,” last summer’s outbreak and corresponding restrictions dealt another crushing blow to hotels and tourism operators. 

The resulting human cost has been immense. Last month, the number of furloughed workers in Taiwan topped 14,000, mostly coming from the support service sector, which is largely composed of travel agencies. The situation has also been devastating for some longstanding pillars of Taiwan’s business community. In February, after two years of struggling to pull in enough business to stay open, the historic Sherwood Hotel, a notable landmark in Taipei’s Songshan district, closed its doors forever.

Since the beginning, AmCham and its member companies have supported and applauded the government’s swift, humane, and effective pandemic management, its against-the-odds procurement and rollout of vaccines, and its economic stimulus programs to help those people and businesses most impacted by COVID-19. Nevertheless, it is clear that the time has come to start relaxing the most severe restrictions and move gradually toward normalizing international travel and tourism.