- By CJ Urquico and Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Getting the house in order
Guam exploring alternative markets while preparing for May 1 reopening
The countdown for the reopening of Guam tourism begins this month. The Leon Guerrero administration marked May 1 on the calendar, with a marginal note: this may be tentative. Getting 50 percent of the island’s adult population fully immunized by the target date is a prerequisite for reopening
Industry stakeholders dub this goal “The Path to Half,” a guarded move to reopen the border while the island remains under a public health emergency. With the California coronavirus strain reaching the shores, health authorities warned that Guam can’t be too careful. Medical experts say this strain has 20 percent more transmissibility.
“We will continue to stay the course,” Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said. “Most all businesses have been operational with moderate restrictions. We must continue to do what we know works: wearing a mask, washing our hands, and watching our distance.”
In the meantime, the island has begun cleaning up and sanitizing. Tumon has a lot of cleansing to do. Several hotels functioned as quarantine facilities at the height of the Covid-19 surge last year.
In her state of the island address on March 8. Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero proposed new investments in Tumon, asking the legislature to appropriate the first $50 million in proceeds from the legal sale of cannabis to fix the perennial flooding in the visitors' district, invest in island beautification and cultural preservation and repair village roads.
"I know that our tourism industry worries about our image with regard to cannabis. I hear your concerns, but the legal sale of cannabis will not define us,” the governor. “We must use the resources we have to shore up when times are hard, in order to be ready to compete against the world when times improve.”
While thrilled about the prospect of resuming business as usual, industry stakeholders won’t be expecting to welcome back Japanese visitors, Guam’s main market, anytime soon. Japan’s borders remain closed to international tourists and there are no signs that the borders will be opened to considerable numbers of tourists in the near future.
At this point, the coronavirus-free Palau may be Guam’s top competition, specifically for the Taiwan market. The neighboring island nation is already ahead in the game with its travel bubble all set to open.
The Guam Visitors Bureau (GVB) has established a new marketing committee specifically devoted to Taiwanese travelers. This segment of the market was previously incorporated into GVB’s Greater China Marketing Committee, which has overseen business cooperation with Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.
More safety measures are being put in place. On March 25, GVB in collaboration with the Customs and Quarantine Agency and the Guam International Airport Authority officially launched the implementation of the Guam Electronic Declaration Form or EDF, which will provide travelers to Guam with a safer touchless entry process upon arrival.
The EDF is a mandatory digital form that all arriving passengers will need to complete before entering Guam. It provides a new platform for travelers to access both the required Customs Declaration form as well as the current Public Health declaration form.
“The EDF technology allows all travelers a safe touchless experience when they visit Guam and is in line with our long-term efforts to reopen our tourism industry going forward,” said GVB President and CEO Carl T.C. Gutierrez.
Tourism is the island's dominant industry. In 2019, before the pandemic, Guam received 1.6 million visitors. The entire industry shut down in March of 2020 and remains closed. Some hotels remain shuttered, while others have become quarantine facilities for inbound travelers.
"One year ago today, we began our fight against Covid-19. Because of your patience, your commitment, your willingness to protect each other and our island, we are here today," the governor said in a press conference on March 15, marking the first time Guam reported its first Covid-19 cases.
"We've been meeting extensively before proceeding with the reopening of Guam. A Path to Half means 50 percent of the population to be fully vaccinated by May. If we get 62,500 adults vaccinated, we will be comfortable with the reopening," added the governor.
During the reopening of tourism, there will be changes in travel requirement protocols. If someone with a negative PCR test 72 hours before boarding comes to Guam, quarantine is waived. As an added safety measure, the mask mandate will remain in force. Visitors must download the Covid Alert App and enroll in Sara Alert for 14 days.
If they do not have that negative test results, travelers will go to a government quarantine facility.
"DPHSS coordinates with approved labs to authenticate the PCR tests to prevent fraud,” Health Director Art San Agustin said.
"We hope to create a travel bubble with Japan, Korea and Taiwan, which are our primary source markets. Discussions are ongoing with the consulates of the respective countries. We don't expect a lot of tourism," said Ben Ferguson, Guam Visitors Bureau board member.
The reopening is contingent on all the vaccine's effectiveness on all Covid-19 variants. Despite the threat of the growing number of mutations, DPHSS said it is ready to manage any potential spikes.
Vaccination of service industry workers is in the works. Gutierrez has sent out inquiries to the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association regarding industry employees that need vaccination.
"We're cleaning up the place, especially Tumon, to get it ready. As we move forward and ramp up vaccination in the service industry, we can possibly allow businesses to open up to 75 percent capacity," Gutierrez said.
GVB is also considering an innovative approach to attract visitors by providing a free exit Covid PCR test. Tests for travelers returning home from Guam's main markets.
A "Safe Travels Stamp" from the World Travel & Tourism Council is also in the works. The stamp will be displayed by businesses that comply with global standardized health and safety protocols. Businesses are encouraged to apply for the stamp on GVB's website.
Along with GVB, GHRA sent out a vaccination census to help determine the demographics and number of workers that will need inoculation. Health authorities have dropped the minimum vaccination age to 16.
"The notice for hotels, restaurants, and bars went out on March 17. GVB also started gathering data for all other tourism employees including, transportation, retail, optional tours, spas, golf courses, airlines, and more," said Mary Rhodes, president of GHRA.
The governor graded GovGuam's performance as an A+ with membership in the national honor society. She also said that the people of Guam deserve the same grade because of their patience and discipline. "A-plus based on the fact that if we did not make the decisions that we made, we would have lost more lives. Our medical system did not crash," said the governor.
The removal of the 14-day travel quarantine is not expected to attract tourists immediately. Most countries in the major markets have implemented strict travel restrictions. In a new report, GVB is optimistic and forecasts over 100,000 visitors this fiscal year.
"We are going to invite the first group of tourists to a fiesta at my house," added Gutierrez during the press conference.
"We have to do this right, and we have to do this safely. We absolutely do not want to go through another strict lockdown. We are not out of the woods, and we do not expect normalcy until the end of the year," Leon Guerrero said. “We still have a lot of preparation, and we need to ensure these goals are met before reopening but we need to prepare now.”
The fragility of Guam's economy manifested. Business closures followed, and layoffs became the new normal. North of 30 percent of jobs on Guam is in or related to tourism.
Guam’s Covid-year economy is estimated to have contracted between 0.7 percent and 18.9 percent, according to the School of Business and Public Administration’s assessment of the island’s tourism-dependent economy that was propped up by federal aid in 2020.
Tourism is estimated to have dipped 76 percent, resulting in a loss of local income and spending of $1.38 billion, the report said.
Economists have noted that the pandemic has been a “wake-up call” for the island to reduce its reliance on tourism and underscores the need to diversify the island’s economy.
“If this were any indication of what was lacking in past visions to diversify our economy, then the opportunity is here to address that problem,” the report said.
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