In one of its last announcements for 2018, the outgoing Calvo administration hoped to end the year (and its term in office) on a happy note. A press release sent on Christmas eve had a Sally Fields-esque email subject: “They really love us. Tourists show love for Guam with record-breaking arrival.”
Statistics showed Guam welcomed 132,850 visitors for the month of November, reflecting an 8.6-percent increase as compared to the same month of the previous year— notably the period when the market was gripped with fear of “fire and fury” amid the tantrums of two state leaders. Back then, Guam was in the crosshairs of North Korea’s threats of missile assault and Donald Trump’s corresponding threats of nuclear retaliation. Seems like a long time ago.
This year’s arrival numbers, according to the Guam Visitors Bureau, broke the 2016 record of 125,748 visitors, claiming the top November spot in Guam tourism history. Obviously, tourists began traveling again, which can be partly attributed to the relative regional peace that ensued after Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un signed a treaty in June that promised North Korea’s “unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
While China remains a nuisance, Pyongyang’s resolve to calm down has reduced tension in the Pacific region and ushered 2018 into the era of peace. Too bad persistent reports say North Korea is back at work on its missile program.
While geopolitical concerns, we hope, may have been taken out of the equation, the Guam market remains challenged by the acute labor shortage that has brought several civilian construction projects to a halt, subsequently stunting further expansion of the island’s $5.1 billion economy.
Our sister islands had it worse in 2018. The CNMI, for example, was battered by a series of destructive typhoons that tormented its yoyo economy. Within less than a week of jubilation over its astounding 25 percent GDP growth in 2017, the Northern Marianas received a violent visit from Yutu that left Saipan and Tinian in shambles and zapped their tourism. But time and again, the CNMI has demonstrated its ability to rebound quickly. As CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres rolls up his sleeves to begin his new term in office, he is faced with the challenge of proving the commonwealth’s resilience once again.
Palau had its own quandary in 2018 when it began to feel the impact of China’s “punishment” for its refusal to give up its diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China has blacklisted the Pacific nation, which in recent years had Chinese travelers as its No. 1 market. At any rate, Palau is not exactly in a destitute situation that would compel it to abandon its diplomatic preference and succumb to China’s pressure. According to the Asian Development Bank’s December 2018 report, Palau has been recording annual fiscal surpluses of 4 percent of GDP since FY2011— even through the current tourism downturn.
Palau’s fiscal feat can’t be matched by other Pacific island nations in the region, whose economic performances in the past year have been decisively poor. International lenders have identified at least six Pacific island countries that are facing elevated risk of debt distress due to narrow economic bases, vulnerability to economic shocks and exposure to climate change and natural disasters. The list of troubled nations includes Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu. While Pacific island nations and territories may share the same cultures, geographical assets and liabilities, each one dealt with unique circumstances that make it quite difficult to define the era that just went by and, collectively, predict the year ahead.
And back on Guam, we have just entered the year of transition, and we are about to see how the Leon Guerrero-Tenorio administration will deal with the island’s economic, political and social challenges. The new Guam Legislature is made up of — refreshingly— fresh faces with, hopefully, fresh ideas. While suspending our judgment and prejudices, we are hoping for the best.
Happy new year!
Mar-Vic Cagurangan is the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Pacific Island Times. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org