BY OYAOL NGIRAIRIKL
Journal Staff

 

Barabe

KOROR, Palau — What was supposed to be a year-long stay in Palau for Jeffrey T. Barabe and his wife, Kassi Berg, has expanded into a 20-year stint that includes a local production company and TV network, hotels and restaurants — all of which were impacted by COVID-19. 

Their financial ventures include the Palau Central Hotel in downtown Koror from 2015, which has a welcoming gastropub called Canoe House Bar & Grill; the Carolines Resort in Meyuns, and from 2014 Elilai Seaside Dining in Ngerkebesang.

For Palau, the halt came in mid- 2020 when then-President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr., closed the island nation to the world.

“Our operations were crushed by COVID-19 in the same ways as everyone else’s,” Barabe said. “Our hotel properties and restaurant had just gone through renovation and expansion and we were poised for a great 2020… then it all fell apart.”  

Barabe said he and his partners “were determined to weather through the pandemic.

“We changed course early and quickly. We focused on the local market and as other businesses began to close, we heartily welcomed their former customers. The Palau government and U.S. government also helped out for a time by supplementing employee payrolls,” Barabe said.

“We got really creative, designing theme parties, movie nights, dart competitions, live music jam sessions — you name it, we tried it.”

These efforts allowed them to keep their employees on payroll throughout the pandemic. That wasn’t the situation for many others employed in the private sector. 

But for Barabe and his partners, it was important to dig deep and make it happen.

“We made a commitment to Palau and that meant in both the good times and bad times.  We wanted to demonstrate our commitment by pushing through the downturn with the community and also wanted to be ready when the market rebounded,” he said. “We also wanted to keep all the great employees we had trained over the years. There was a financial commitment — but in the end we were able to continue operations and able to fully operate as business begins to rebound.  It just made sense.”

Palau saw its first COVID-19 cases in August 2021, shortly after allowing regular commercial airline flights to and from Guam resumed. The country re-opened slowly, starting with U.S. military in 2020. Official tourism flights started April 1, 2021, through a “travel bubble” with Taipei. There were twice-weekly roundtrip flights, carrying up to 100 passengers per flight. Seven weeks and about 300 passengers later, the travel bubble ended due to a spike of COVID-19 cases in Taipei. In May 2021, Palau opened its borders to fully vaccinated travelers.

And while tourism numbers are still just a fraction of what they were pre-COVID-19, the Palau Visitors Bureau has noted an increase in tourism numbers.

In July 2019, prior to COVID-19, Palau welcomed 7,084 visitors, according to the Palau Visitors Authority. In July 2020, that dropped to 20. In July 2021, it was 293. And in that same month in 2022, there were 1,113.

The increased visitor arrival numbers in 2022 were boosted enormously by U.S. military personnel participating in strategic military exercises, including Valiant Shield 2022 and the first-ever Patriot missile live-fire exercise in June.

“The U.S. government and military and visiting dignitaries have injected much needed revenue into the hotels, restaurants, tour companies, and stores all around Palau.  Talk in town now regularly includes discussion of the next military exercise or port call,” Barabe said.

The Canoe House Bar & Grill is a gastropub attached to the Palau Central Hotel.
Photo courtesy of Palau Central Hotel

Additionally, there’s been discussion between Palau and partners in Asia on the return of direct flights that would help further boost much-needed tourism.

Barabe said they’ve seen the boost in tourism over the last year, but Palau, he said, is “not in post-COVID-19 yet.”

“The bottom line is that the flight routes to Palau have not yet resumed, so getting to Palau remains very difficult. The rising costs of fuel, inflation and the new VAT tax regime are also making Palau more expensive than other regional destinations, so we are still struggling to recover.  The 2023 season looks encouraging, but our projections still show a fraction of the 2019 numbers,” he said.

As to how their story began, Barabe traveled to Palau with Berg, who initially took a job with the government of Palau.

“My background was in the movie business, and I saw an opportunity to set up a local production company (to) develop Pacific Islands content. That’s really how it all began,” Barabe said. “Twenty years later, Roll ‘em Productions is still involved in local and international productions, and Oceania Television Network is still broadcasting.”

Berg opened her own law firm —The Pacific Development Law Group — in partnership in 2014. Barabe started what became a series of investments in the tourism and hospitality sector. 

“Each opportunity led to other opportunities. The process of investing in Palau has been really organic,” he said.

“Palau is gorgeous and a great place to live and explore. We wanted to participate in its development. Low taxes, affordable labor, and limited roadblocks made Palau an inspiring place to invest.”

There are other investment projects still in the early stages of development, Barabe said. 

He said anyone interested in investing in Palau would be wise to remember, “Provide excellence in whatever you endeavor.

“Excellence is recognized everywhere, including Palau.  Do your homework.  Palau has a kaleidoscope of opportunities, but each comes with a unique set of challenges. Participate in the local and business community if you want to succeed; Palau holds all of the complexity of a large nation packed into a small island nation,” he said. “Spend some time here, chat with the locals — and have a drink at the Canoe House.” mbj