Funeral for the wedding industry
On the second floor of Tumon Sands Plaza, a wedding gown and a groom’s suit display appears forsaken behind the glass wall of Watabe nuptial boutique that borrows light from outside. Its former exuberance has been replaced by gloom. Posted on the glass wall is a sign that has now become ubiquitous: “Temporarily closed until further notice.”
The Guam Visitors Bureau set out to woo the Hong Kong market in 2020, hoping to charm the betrothed into a quaint destination wedding on an island, in a chapel overlooking the pristine Pacific Ocean under a clear blue sky complete with a honeymoon by the sea.
The bureau planned to promote Guam at a wedding expo in Hong Kong in February 2020 but the plan didn’t pan out. In its annual report, GVB offered a terse explanation as to why it missed the wedding expo: The event was postponed “due to Covid-19.” It was a phrase that would come to define 2020.
Chapels shuttered last year along with the rest of the island’s tourism-based businesses. The destination wedding industry on Guam, like everything else, was either postponed or canceled due to Covid-19, and left comatose as the world grappled with the virus.
At first, longtime wedding planner Jane Kwok’s overseas clients opted to postpone their 2020 wedding plans. March wedding plans were rescheduled for September.
“We tried to postpone for six months,” said Kwok, owner of Fashion Bride.
Guam was initially scheduled to reopen tourism in July 2020, but the government recalled reopening plan when the second wave set in. By September 2020, the situation did not get better, but couples remained hopeful, opting to hold off on their dreams for another six months.
But after a year, Kwok said she decided to refund her clients overseas. “I don't see that the pandemic will be over soon, so I refunded the majority of the customers’ money,” she said.
Kwok’s clients mostly came from Hong Kong, a market that GVB had been targeting for years for Guam wedding products. Most visiting honeymooners and engaged couples came from Japan, the island’s main source of visitors.
In fiscal 2019, Guam had 664,000 Japanese tourists; about 5 percent of those surveyed came either to get married or attend a wedding.
Kwok said most destination clients come from Japan but she saw an opportunity for marketing Guam wedding services to Chinese couples in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
When there was a SARS outbreak in Asia, she saw a dramatic drop in tourists coming to Guam to wed. When United canceled direct flights between Guam and Hong Kong, she again saw the impact on the local industry.
The pandemic then shut out all of her wedding tourism clients, prompting Kwok to rethink her business strategy. “Since there are no tourists, I am catering to the locals right now,” she said.
From late 2020 through this year, Kwok worked with about 50 local couples. With extra income in hand from federal stimulus aid, many couples, who were previously scheduled to get married last year, eventually went ahead with their wedding plans, she said.
While local clients have been a welcome business, there are still social gathering restrictions to contend with, forcing couples to shorten their guest list, depending on whether the ceremony is indoors or outdoors, according to Kwok.
“Some of them have a big vision—especially the brides—of how they want the wedding to be, like 100 people, decorations, music, flowers, everything. But with Covid right now, they can only have a very, very minimal celebration, or no celebration at all,” Kwok said.
She has seen many couples opting to get married in court. “That is a big change and, of course, a lot of brides are really disappointed, but they don’t have a choice,” Kwok said.
Unlike this time last year, there are now more flight arrivals and quarantine protocols have been lifted. GVB’s latest numbers show visitors are trickling into Guam.
Exit surveys from May 2021 even showed some travelers from Japan had come here for a wedding, a sign that the industry is wheezing back to life.
Of the 4,352 arrivals that month, 102 visitors were from Japan and about 7 percent of those surveyed said they were here to get married or attend a wedding.
Wedding planners like Kwok are looking for any leads to keep their businesses alive. "I currently have some inquiries from the Philippines,” Kwok said. “Some of the people like it here because, right now, Guam is an open destination so people can come if they have been vaccinated and don't need to be quarantined.”
Kwok recently planned a wedding for a couple from Singapore. “They decided to come because Guam is the only place that is open right now. They can get a legal marriage license that’s recognized worldwide,” she said.
Even with local clients, Kwok said she still has fewer customers than before the pandemic. Business has been “really bad,” Kwok said. “I don’t see (it) picking up until, honestly, maybe at least another year.”