CORONAVIRUS/Food, lodging sectors in Taiwan hit hard by COVID-19 outbreak

07/18/2021 06:46 PM
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Workers clean a room in a quarantine hotel in Kinmen. CNA file photo
Workers clean a room in a quarantine hotel in Kinmen. CNA file photo

Taipei, July 18 (CNA) The COVID-19 outbreak that has gripped Taiwan for the past two months and the restrictions imposed to curb its spread have dealt a harsh blow to hotels and eateries, with operators calling for a government bailout.

Cheng Sheng-chang (鄭生昌), a spokesman for the Hotel Association of ROC, said the industry is barely hanging on and desperate for government assistance.

"I can't describe how awful the situation is now. Basically we're on life support," Cheng told CNA.

Around 60 percent of Taiwan's hotels have voluntarily ceased operations and most of the others have been converted into quarantine hotels, Cheng said.

Hotels designated as quarantine hotels can accept travelers who have entered Taiwan from abroad and need to do 14-day quarantines and others who need to self-isolate, providing at least some income in lean times, especially after restrictions were tightened in mid-May.

Taiwan imposed a nationwide Level 3 COVID-19 alert on May 19 after similar restrictions had been put in place in Taipei and New Taipei days earlier to curb a sudden surge in case numbers that started on May 15.

The restrictions limited people's movements and consumer activity. Gatherings of more than four people indoors and nine people outdoors were prohibited, entertainment and cultural venues were closed, and in-person dining was not allowed.

Even before then, however, Taiwan residents remained cautious about domestic travel and the country's borders remained virtually sealed to inbound tourists, making it hard for hotels to survive.

The Tourism Bureau offered travel industry employers a one-time subsidy of NT$40,000 (US$1,445) for each of their employees to subsidize their wages between April and July, but Cheng said more is needed for the rest of 2021 given that the market is not getting better.

According to data released by the Ministry of Labor, the number of workers in the lodging and food/beverage sectors on unpaid leave programs have soared in the past two weeks to 14,814 as of Friday, suggesting that the situation for employers has gotten worse.

Even then, however, the figures may seriously underestimate the scale of the difficulties those industries are facing now and perhaps in the future.

The Tourism Bureau's subsidy, which stipulated that employers who received it could not put employees on unpaid leave, benefited an estimated 98,000 people, the bureau said when it issued the payments, indicating how widespread the need for help was.

Cheng also noted that much of the official data fails to capture the huge hospitality supply chain in its totality and the hundreds of thousands of people employed by it.

A restaurant worker surnamed Lai (賴) also shared with CNA her frustrations, adding that she has only been able to work on weekends over the past two months.

The 67-year-old said the fact that it was a job found after retirement and that she was not a member of any related union has made it very difficult to get help.

"There is no chance for people like us who are at the bottom of society, and the agencies I have called are merely passing the buck," she said.

The industry can only hope for the lifting of the alert to make ends meet, Lai said.

As soon as case numbers spiked in mid-May, it was already clear that the hotel and restaurant sector would struggle.

Figures released in late May by 104 Corporation, an online manpower agency, showed declines in job openings posted by different industries on the agency's website at the time Level 3 alerts were announced.

The job postings of the food and beverage sector fell by 11,871, or about 9.6 percent, from April 30 to May 19, and those in the lodging sector fell by 13.4 percent.

The Level 3 restrictions were partially eased on July 13, with some movie theaters, gyms and museums re-opening, but the ban on in-person dining has yet to be lifted by most local governments.

As COVID-19 case numbers fall, hitting single digits on Saturday, other constraints on people's movements and consumer behavior could be eased in the coming weeks.

Cheng said he was confident that once the Level 3 alert is lifted, hotels in Yilan, Hualien and Taitung on Taiwan's east coast will see a significant recovery brought by pent-up travel demand from domestic travelers.

He was worried, however, for the hospitality industry in urban areas, which account for two-thirds of the 3,400 hotels in Taiwan, as it remains unclear how comfortable potential guests will be to make overnight visits to cities even as the case numbers drop.

(By Wu Hsin-yun, Frances Huang and Lee Hsin-Yin)

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