Guam leaders hold on to optimism amid the emergence of a new variant
By C.J. Urquico 2021 is like the intro into a show that is being binge-watched. The viewer is inclined to press the "skip intro" button to move on to 2022.
It's quiet over the skies of the Mongmong-Toto Maite tri-village area. The planes that used to tell the time of day have gone away since the pandemic started. Nowadays, few flights are landing on the island.
For the past two years, driving through Tumon, one feels a sense of desolation. Gone are the groups of happy Japanese and Korean visitors, some in matching island-print clothing, walking up and down Tumon. Asian countries continue to struggle with Covid, hence they are not traveling. Some businesses have also disappeared in the wake of lockdowns and crowd restrictions.
The island's business owners have adapted to the new realities. Restaurants adapted to serve only take-out, then outdoor dining, and finally indoors with limited seating. Additionally, the island's economy got by with safety net programs from the federal government.
Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said the traffic jams at malls on Black Friday weekend may be an indicator of Guam's economy heading to recovery. “Pandemic restrictions are relaxing as a new wave of vaccinations continues to help lower the number of infections,” the governor said. “As a result, tourists are starting to come back. Guam is just too beautiful to resist.”
The Economic Outlook for Guam Fiscal Year 2022 reports that, "Tourism will quite possibly begin a partial rebound, from the current virtual shutdown situation, later in 2021 and continuing into 2022. Federal expenditures are likely to remain well above normal levels due to Covid-19 stimulus and relief funding, although it is unclear whether they will continue at the amounts received in 2020."
Construction activity is growing, reignited after removing previous H-2B visa restrictions by the Trump administration. The restrictions created a lack of labor on the island. The military buildup is proceeding with the ongoing construction of the Marine Corps relocation projects, facilities for training, and housing.
Some notable civilian projects to look forward to are the new Guam International Airport Authority International Arrivals Corridor, Don Don Donki, a discount mall rising at the Airport Road and Marine Corps Drive intersection, and the Guam Power Authority’s 198-megawatt, $534 million Korea Electric Power Corp. plant in Dededo.
With record low-interest rates, the real estate sector is experiencing a boom in home sales. New homes that are being built sell quickly due to high demand and diminishing inventory. In addition, the military market has grown exponentially, with service members renting and purchasing available housing in Guam.
Tourism is the lifeblood of Guam. But, much as everywhere else in the world, Covid-19 has stopped the flow of visitors. The people who continue to promote the beauty and culture of Guam full time and full speed, 24/7/365, are at the Guam Visitors Bureau (GVB).
"The only way through these hard times is by working together and moving forward. We are optimistic about these next couple of months as more airlines will provide direct routes from countries like Korea," said Nadine Leon Guerrero, GVB’s director of global marketing.
"The Korean market had been growing before the pandemic. However, it's starting to look like 2022 will bring more Korean visitors to our island. We recently completed our first familiarization tour since the pandemic began with nearly 50 travel trade partners from Korea,” Leon Guerrero said. “The fam tour successfully showed travel agents, airlines, media, and influencers that Guam is a safe and viable destination. In addition, our #GuamAgain marketing campaign is active in positioning Guam as the best travel destination in this ‘Living with Covid’ phase and encourages travelers to revisit Guam.”
To keep Guam top of mind, GVB fielded campaigns in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. "In the Japan market, we also partnered with United to have Guam featured in a two-part series on a popular Japanese show called TabiSalad by TV Asahi. The reach of this coverage of Guam has already exceeded 160 million views. We're continuing to work with influencers that also have additional reach to keep Guam top-of-mind. In the Taiwan market, we have ongoing travel trade co-ops, seminars, and festivals in-country that will maintain Guam's constant presence.”
Social networking sites are key to maintaining Guam’s presence in the three source markets. “We're hopeful the tourism industry can achieve a gradual recovery over the next three to five years. We will continue to monitor how this pandemic progresses and adapt as we go," Leon Guerrero said.
The one unwelcome visitor to Guam is Covid-19. Reality is sinking in. Unlike visitors from other countries, Covid is here to stay. The pandemic is now endemic. Infection numbers are going down, yet people are still cautious.
Taking precautions is our natural shield since it is already known that vaccination does not make people 100 percent immune to the virus. Emerging mutations such as the Omicron variant also create challenges to the vaccine and immunity. Omicron is derived from the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. In ongoing early studies, the new mutation may be more contagious than the delta variant.
Catherine Castro, president of the Guam Chamber of Commerce, said some business owners did very well. “The pandemic did not negatively impact Guam companies that catered to the military or were considered essential,” she said. “However, many, especially in the tourism industry, did not do well at all. As a result, several companies that cater specifically to tourists are shuttered."
Federal assistance through President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan has provided a safety net for Guam, which has been allocated $554 million.
As of October, the Guam Department of Labor has paid out more than $805 million in direct benefits to workers out of $1.065 billion in authorized federal funding for the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. The number of remaining PUA claimants has gone down 1,722, from 30,000 during the program's peak in 2020.
Despite the shutdown of many businesses, more have opened this year. The University of Guam has been hosting a series of job fairs for a dozen employers and organizations, giving another sign of recovery.
Castro noted some optimism as the global community slowly eases from pandemic restrictions and just as slowly allows for inbound and outbound travel. “However, supply chain issues will continue to be an issue for much of 2022. The chamber will continue to focus on its membership and help them as best we can to keep their doors open and keep people employed,” Castro said.
The chamber has been urging the government to support the private sector by easing restrictions, lowering taxes and the cost of doing business to support the fragile state of the current economy until tourism numbers pick up and stabilize, Castro said.
“We will continue to work in partnership with the governor on economic diversification initiatives. We have a good working partnership between the private sector and the government,” Castro said. “The pandemic has ushered in the reliance on science, wellness, and technology. As a result, work skills will revolve around these industries, and the entire world is scouting for employees to take on critical positions to support the various infrastructures in place to support these fields.”
Gov. Leon Guerrero said she is cautiously optimistic about Guam’s recovery in 2022. “Tourism will slowly bounce back, and our attraction will be a safe haven. There will be more military construction and R&R here, which will be good for our economy,” she said.
She said Guam will start seeing more infrastructure improvements in roads, the port and airport, as well as construction of a new school and health care facilities that will be funded by federal grants.
Gov. Leon Guerrero, who is seeking reelection next year, promises that Guam “will see commerce diversify” and “the well-being of our people lifted and improved.”
While the island tries to navigate its way out of the pandemic, the governor offered a caveat. “Along with the rest of the world, the island learned a collective truth in the past two years—that the only thing for sure is uncertainty,” she said.