KOROR, PALAU – Chinese tourists are flocking to the remote Palau islands as China’s growing number of rich seek new frontiers abroad, but not everyone in the Micronesian paradise is happy about it.
Strapped into life-jackets and screaming with excitement, groups of boisterous Chinese thrill-seekers tear around Palau’s “Milky Way” lagoon on a flotilla of speedboats, a spectacle unfamiliar to residents just a few months ago.
Inhabitants of the archipelago, part of the larger island group of Micronesia, are baffled as to why Chinese travelers represented almost 62 percent of all visitors in February, up from 16 percent in January 2014.
Japanese visitors were traditionally the largest contingent, followed by Taiwanese and Koreans.
For businessman Du Chuang from China’s Sichuan Province, it is because his increasingly wealthy countrymen are becoming more adventurous, smashing the stereotype of the herded package tour. Du first started to travel by visiting Hainan, the Chinese island in the South China Sea currently witnessing a massive development of hotel resorts. He then ventured to Thailand before branching out to the Maldives.
“The corals here are more beautiful than Sanya (on Hainan),” Du, 46, said, scrolling through photos on his phone of a $1,400 helicopter trip over Palau’s Seventy Islands that he took his family on. “Palau is small and magnificent.”
Hoteliers are catching on, with establishments focused on Chinese clientele booked out months in advance.
On a beach Chinese women wearing full body suits to protect themselves from the sun posed for selfies with husbands and boyfriends in sleeveless vests, to send to their friends back home in China’s gray mega-cities.
Jia Yixin, a 30-year-old from Shanghai, didn’t think twice about paying $1,133 for a six-day trip to Palau that she found online. “It is like paradise here,” she beamed. “In Shanghai the air is polluted but here people respect the environment.”
Ironically, it is the potential environmental impact of the Chinese invasion that is at the forefront of the minds of many of Palau’s 18,000 population.
Palau welcomed just shy of 141,000 visitors last year, up 34 percent on 2013, largely on the back of the Chinese visitors. But last month, mainland Chinese visitors leaped more than 500 percent year-on-year to 10,955, over half Palau’s total population.Tourism accounts for close to 85 percent of Palau’s GDP, and while profits are up, some are worried the long-term damage may be too great.
“This is a very sudden influx, so we are trying to understand the situation” said Nanae Singeo, managing director of the Palau Visitors Authority. “We have never experienced this much tourism before and the magnitude is really giving us a lot of pressure. We are a very tiny country with scarce resources so this sudden increase is an unknown challenge for us.”
Palau has long catered for a particular type of visitor, with up to 70 percent of tourists coming for world-famous diving in stunning blue waters with pristine corals. But the majority of the new wave of Chinese tourists seem more interested, for now at least, in lounging on the beach.
“We are not seeing a growth rate to match the number of visitors,” said Singeo. “Tourists are up 34 percent so technically we should see economic benefits at the rate of 30 percent or more, but that’s not the case.”
On the streets of Koror, some accused Chinese people of being noisy and disrespectful toward the environment.
In one recent example, a Chinese tour operator caused outrage in Palau with leaflets including photos of grinning Chinese tourists holding up turtles they had removed from the water, in one case by the flippers. Residents have also accused Chinese tourists of being responsible for the deaths of some of the wildlife in the natural wonder “Jellyfish Lake.”
The Palau government is exploring ways to try to stem the tide of Chinese tourists to the western Pacific Ocean archipelago and last week said the number of charter flights from China would be halved.
President Tommy Remengesau said the move was made to prevent tourism from becoming too reliant on one market. “Do we want to control growth or do we want growth to control us?” he asked reporters.
But the number of hotels, restaurants and guides in Palau now catering for a Chinese market would suggest that citizens of the world’s second-largest economy are likely to keep coming.