• By Phillip V. Cruz Jr.

Carl TC Gutierrez: Reviving tourism against all odds

On June 24, the Guam Visitors Bureau launched an online campaign designed to reassure visitors that Guam was a safe and healthy destination. A GVB video titled “Visit Guam Safely” begins with greetings from former governor Carl T. C. Gutierrez, in his signature sunny yellow shirt, and features the local mascot Che’lu the Ko’ko’ Bird demonstrating to travelers what they can expect when they come to Guam in the “new Covid-19 safe environment.”

“As we begin to settle into the new normal, our island is starting to reopen but still living with the threat of Covid-19,” Gutierrez said in the GVB video. “Guam’s visitor industry partners are already implementing proper processes and protocols to make Guam Covid safe. It’s best to showcase what Guam is doing to stay safe particularly as we gear up for the lifting of travel bans and quarantines.”

The GVB campaign was launched in preparation for the reopening of Guam tourism, which Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero originally set for July 1. Two days after the campaign’s launch, however, the governor was compelled to backpedal after the Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services reported 14 Covid-19 positive cases, the largest number in a single day. The alarming number has prompted the governor to push back the reopening of tourism.

When will it really be safe for Guam to bring the tourists back? When will the travel demand start picking up? More important, how will Guam compete with coronavirus-free tropical destinations in the Pacific region?

Taking Guam tourism to the recovery path is a task assigned to Gutierrez, who took the helm of GVB following the retirement of Pilar Lujan.

“Governor Leon Guerrero appointed me interim president and CEO for a period of 90 days,” said the former governor. “My mission is to work cooperatively with all stakeholders to safely reopen Guam’s visitor industry.”

Gutierrez was a two-term governor, serving from 1995 to 2003. He governed Guam during the heyday of the island’s tourism in the 1990s.

This year, tourism is facing unfamiliar challenges. In accordance with the governor’s directive, travelers from Covid-19 hotspots, such as the Philippines, will be quarantined in government facilities for 14 days upon arrival to Guam. “We will monitor Covid-19 infection rates in our Japan and South Korea source markets, and we can adjust travel requirements to mitigate risk,” Gutierrez said.

The visitor industry is now laying the groundwork to court back the island’s primary source markets, including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, Gutierrez said. He said he plans to rebuild the arrival numbers while executing a reimagined vision that is more deeply rooted in Guam’s unique culture and history. He said Guam has a compelling story to tell, which he said he will narrate to the world to attract the spending power of the affluent and more discerning travelers.

With high-end hotels, such as Dusit Thani and The Tsubaki Tower, Gutierrez said, “we began turning the corner toward a new destination experience.”

Gutierrez believes this development trend will spur demand for restless Asian travelers, who seek to experience a refreshed “Destination Guam,” while remaining accommodation capacities are fulfilled by the arrival of thousands of U.S. Marines and their families in the coming years. “Our men and women in uniform and their dependents will also want modern hotel accommodations before they settle into their new residences on and off base,” Gutierrez added.

But first things first. “That means making our island clean, green, and welcoming and keeping it that way,” said Gutierrez, who is also the governor’s chief advisor for economic development and national and international affairs. “Embracing the spirit of welcome means identifying funding for capital improvements, as well as encouraging and incentivizing hoteliers, restaurateur, and optional tour operators to upgrade their facilities.”

Guam’s tourism industry is the island’s top economic driver, directly and indirectly supporting more than 21,000 jobs. In 2019, Guam welcomed a record 1.6 million visitors to its shores. When Covid-19 reached Guam’s shores on March 15, the island’s tourism industry came to a halt bringing the island’s economy to a standstill.

We just can’t do things the old way anymore,” Gutierrez said. “So, we’re finding new ways of reducing the friction to make everyone feel as safe, served and cared for as possible.”

Gutierrez added that travelers need reassurance that their travel, arrival, customs processing, terms of stay and home-return experiences will be as seamless and enjoyable as possible.

People have adapted to the pandemic realities, and they are now adjusting to a safeguarded pandemic wind-down. But the prospect of certain activities like air travel and destination exploration are fraught with potential hassles, long waits and fears of the unknown about viral patterns. That’s because the world has been scrambling to adjust to “the new normal” and eliminate inconveniences.

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