New resorts set to put spotlight on tropical Palau

Fri Oct 2, 2009 2:18am EDT
 
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By Ralph Jennings and Neil Chatterjee

TAIPEI/SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Palau, a nation of sparsely populated Pacific islands surrounded by turquoise waters teeming with fish and giant clams, is so obscure most people must scour a map to find it. But with a crop of high-end resorts coming up, the islands may soon become a luxury tourist hotspot.

Tropical Palau lies east of the Philippines and north of Indonesia, and there are only 21,000 inhabitants.

It recently relaxed laws to allow new resorts to be set up, and Palau's legislature, based in a grandiose Roman-style building that is surrounded by nothing but rolling countryside and sea views, is also pushing a bill that would allow casinos and investment from some of the big names in Las Vegas.

Once the scene of a bloody World War Two siege, and a U.S. territory blocked from developing at its own pace, the nation is now aiming for 250,000 tourists per year and it needs 4,000 hotel rooms, up from 1,100 today, to get there, said Jackson Henry, Palau's ambassador to Taiwan.

"The goal of tourism in Palau is quality, not quantity," Henry told Reuters. "Because of our fragile marine eco-system, Palau does not aim at mass tourism. Instead, Palau targets the selective high-end visitors."

Only a nation since 1994, Palau already attracts about 84,000 tourist arrivals per year, largely from east Asian countries such as Japan and Taiwan, and often divers.

They are drawn by vertical coral dropoffs patrolled by reef sharks, turtles and 2-meter Napoleon wrasse fish. Snorkellers can float past schools of dancing butterfly fish or menacing barracuda, while iridescent clams snap shut as shadows pass by.

"After you've seen all the big stuff, you start looking at the little things," said a dive instructor who only gave his name as Matias, hunting for multicolored nudibranches and shrimps near the Carp Island Resort, which is trying to attract more European tourists.   Continued...

 
<p>An aerial view of islands in Palau in this undated photo. Palau, a nation of sparsely populated Pacific islands surrounded by turquoise waters teeming with fish and giant clams, is so obscure most people must scour a map to find it. But with a crop of high-end resorts coming up, the islands may soon become a luxury tourist hotspot. REUTERS/Jackson Henry</p>