Op Ed: Sold Out

The following is a submission by a viewer and is not necessarily the opinion of OTV or the management.

A virtual explosion of Chinese tourism is engulfing the nation while the people of the land appear stunned, stuff as if watching a tsunami approach in slow motion.  I find myself in a similar state, counting the Chinese restaurants as I drive down the main road in disbelief of what has happened in the last year.  How did my quaint island country become little Beijing?  Signs no longer contain any Palauan or English, just an unfamiliar character that indicates restaurant, gift shop or massage parlor.  But the biggest changes are not the hordes of tourists urinating in Jellyfish Lake, the crowded beaches with trash left behind or dozens of the restaurants serving Maml, undersized coconut crabs and out of season Tiao.  No, the biggest changes are to the society and growing gap between the elite class and the rest of us normal Palauans.
Tourist arrivals are increasing exponentially with the prices of everything rising, but our salaries are staying the same.  Our homes are being sold and our land leased for 99 years. Hello, 99 years, that is 5 generations! This means the next Palauans to have access to the property are the great, great, great grandkids, but how about right now? Palauans and long-term residents are being kicked out of their homes to accommodate the rapidly growing Chinese population. A cousin of mine was kicked out of his apartment because Chinese bought the whole building. Now he cannot find an affordable place in Koror to live in.  Sure he can move to his family home in Honto but it will cost him 3 hours of pay each day for gas to get to work.  And this story is being repeated all over Koror and Airai. What’s even more sad is how much people are getting for their land.  Selling for a one-time fee of $50,000 per piece of property that is actually worth millions over the long run. So who is benefiting from this red tide?  Surely not the average employee. A hand full of past and present political Uabs are stuffing their pockets with millions from made up fees, bribes and shady deals that bring corruption in Palau to a whole new level.  Watch them protest on behalf of their foreign masters as restrictions on charter flights are imposed.
Also consider the lost revenue from massive packaged tourism.  When these charter tour companies sell their packages they do so in China.  No one in Palau knows how much these tour packages are being sold for because the money never reaches Palau, which means no GRT.  We do know that the Chinese package tourists come on the chartered flight to the pre-purchased hotel with the partner tour company and eat in the package restaurants.  The customers are bussed to the tour companies gift shops and then go home.  These closed loops leave very little money behind.  Even the tour guides arrive with the groups posing as tourists at immigration so they don’t have to get a work permit.  I have seen this first hand.
These pre-purchased rooms accommodating mass Chinese tourism are shrinking the number of tourists from other markets. Several of Palau’s larger hotels have been bought out nearly a year in advance while others have been leased in their entirety for years to come. Without naming names I can tell you that well over half of Palau’s 1,400 rooms have been bought out. This makes good business sense for the charters because without rooms there are no customers for the flights, uhh sorry scheduled airlines that have been serving Palau for years. Bottom line is that the charters have booked the rooms and there’s nowhere for the regular tourists to go. Take away the tourists and the airlines follow. How long before United cuts flights while Delta and JAL pull out entirely putting the final nail in our Japanese and western tourism markets.
So let’s look at our environment, in less than a year seafood prices have nearly doubled and some things like mangrove crab are getting hard to find. I remember the days when mangrove crab was $2.50 a crab, now it is up to $15 a pound!  How many restaurants have to get busted before we admit that something is very, very wrong?  How can we have a marine sanctuary when we can’t even control the pillaging of our coastlines?  Heed my words, Palau’s seafood, bats and anything else that moves are about to be eaten into extinction.
The big question now is which direction does Palau want to take, or is it too late to decide?  A wise man once said, “Just because we can, does not mean we should.”  The mass Chinese tourism is quickly pushing out all other markets and the results will reverberate for decades. While a handful of elite are benefiting big time, the losers will be the people and businesses that are already suffering. Those who have built businesses by providing quality experiences for decades are being shut out.  The Japanese, European and tourist markets are quickly realizing Palau sold out.
Yep Palau sold out!  Whatever dreams and promises of high-end tourism Palau had you can kiss goodbye. Palauans can head for the hills as Koror becomes unrecognizable and unaffordable. Sure the Chinese will fill the market for a few years, maybe. And in the smoldering ruins will remain a broken tourism industry that resembles Saipan.
Okay enough whining, how about solutions.  Well first off some of the change is irreversible.  Palau opened the floodgates to investment without a modicum of foresight as to the impact.  Investments have been made and businesses approved.  They are not going away.  So charter flights, put proper and real restrictions on them, not a publicity stunt to tell them to cut flights when the season is ending and they are already cutting back.  Limit flights and require them to become scheduled after a period.  And get rid of these special interest permits that give a few private individuals the ability to control and profit extensively from charter landing rights.  Visas for non-diplomatic countries?  Well this is the broad sword and would end Chinese tourism immediately.  There would be financial and political impacts but is a dramatic solution required to protect the homeland.  Or we can do what we have been doing, nothing.  Let the money control our destiny and watch the chaos until it is too late and we all stand around staring at the flashing lights and red signs filling main street and say “What happened to Palau?”.
Concerned Citizen