Guam is building a new niche market and has found the perfect pitch: Vacation while you wait.
Dubbed “Air V&V”— a campaign that seeks to lure American expats and other nationalities seeking to get Covid-19 jabs – is Guam’s makeshift approach to thaw the tourism freeze.
Carl Gutierrez, president of the Guam Visitors Bureau, initially projected 30,000 vaccine-seeking visitors to come to Guam by the end of the year.
The projected number, of course, is well below the pre-Covid level, but as far as the industry stakeholders are concerned, it’s better than nothing.
Four charter flights from Taiwan were initially scheduled to arrive on Guam this month. But Gutierrez anticipates about 20 charter flights in July alone when the quarantine requirement and other Covid-19 related restrictions are fully lifted.
“By then, we can expect more than 30,000 visitors,” Gutierrez said.
Worldwide, the outlook for the tourism sector remains highly uncertain. Economists estimated international tourism to have decreased by around 80 percent in 2020.
Guam was initially scheduled to welcome tourists back in July last year when the curve began to flatten, until it was caught off guard. The reopening plan was aborted by the second wave of coronavirus infections that reached its peak around summer and death count announcements became a daily routine for the government. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “no travel” advisory for Guam, which was marked as a high-risk destination.
Guam is a veteran of disasters — typhoons, SARS and Asian market meltdowns. Each time, the island’s tourism proved its resilience. But Covid-19 is an unfamiliar plague. Its consequences are more intricate, if not unpredictable.
A study by the University of Guam estimated that Guam's tourism suffered a 76 percent decline in visitor arrivals during the Covid year compared to 2019. GVB has reported that the tourism drop resulted in a loss of local income and spending of $1.38 billion and an unemployment rate of 19.8 to 26.6 percent.
Domestic tourism has helped mitigate the blow, at least partially. Guam hotels and other businesses that typically catered only to tourists began tapping the local market. Awash in cash from the federal government’s generous stimulus grants, local residents had a field day with hotel package deals and bargain sales of luxury products they would otherwise not buy.
The tourism industry also cashed in on the presence of the U.S. Navy and Singapore Navy participating in Exercise Pacific Griffin 2021, an annual bilateral maritime exercise, which took place June 22 through July 7.
Gutierrez is optimistic that tourism will bounce back sooner than expected. According to travel pundits, the apparent success of the vaccines and lifting of restrictions have contributed to a growing number of people feeling more confident about getting out and about and away.
Travel Pulse, a website dedicated to tourism, said the pent-up demand for travel created by more than a year of being home-bound has led to a record number of flights being booked, particularly for summer.
While Guam prepares for full reopening, Japan — traditionally Guam’s main market — is currently out of the equation. Border measures that remain in place apply to Japanese travelers. Gutierrez said Guam is counting on Taiwan and Korea.
A dozen hotels participating in Air V&V are receiving bookings from travelers seeking to take advantage of the availability of Pfizer, Moderna, and the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines. “If they choose Johnson & Johnson, they can come here for the weekend and go back home,” Gutierrez said.
“This program captures a unique demographic of travelers around the world that are tired of waiting to get vaccinated in this pandemic,” Gutierrez said in a June 20 statement announcing the governor’s approval of the Air V&V protocols.
“This will give a shot in the arm to our tourism industry through this unique and valuable service, offering more opportunities to put our people back to work and get our economy roaring again.”
Guam, which currently has low Covid-19 infections, has gained a reputation for having the most effective vaccine roll-outs in the Pacific Islands region. The Center for Disease and Prevention Control has lowered Guam’s exposure risk to level 2, which corresponds to “moderate.”
Speaking at the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association’s Economic Forum at the Hyatt Regency Guam on June 24, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said Guam has now moved from Covid response to Covid recovery.
The island is now closer to normalization, she said. Herd immunity is key to full recovery.
As of the last week of June, more than 91,000 adults on Guam are fully immunized. “That means nearly 72 percent of our adult population have the full protection of the vaccine, bringing us closer to liberating Guam from the clutches of this deadly virus,” Leon Guerrero said.
Operation Liberate Guam seeks to vaccinate 80 percent of the island’s adult population by Guam’s Liberation Day on July 21. If successful, it will mark the return to normalcy.
While headed for recovery, Guam’s post-Covid challenge is to build a more resilient and sustainable tourism economy.