By CJ Urquico
2019 was a banner year for Guam’s tourism industry. The island saw record-breaking arrivals of 1.63 million visitors spending an estimated $946.5 million. Unfortunately, the pandemic halted growth with an 80 percent drop in 2020. In the fiscal year 2021, arrivals plunged to 60,343.
The pandemic precautions started on Feb. 7, 2020, when the island denied an entry request from the MS Westerdam cruise ship. The ship was suspected of having an outbreak, which later turned out to be a false alarm. The following month, tourist arrivals plummeted by 50 percent.
Then, on March 15, three residents who visited the Philippines tested positive for Covid-19 when they returned home. The government immediately subjected incoming passengers from known Covid-19-infected places to mandatory quarantine. Soon after, all foreign airlines suspended flight operations to the island. United Airlines continued operations with mostly unoccupied aircraft.
The military stepped in to occupy most of the available rooms according to their needs. Some hotels simply stopped operating. Restaurants either shifted to takeout-only operation or shut down entirely. The center of Guam's tourism, Tumon, became a ghost town.
Guam attempted a few times to jumpstart the industry, but initiatives—such as the vacation ‘n’ vaccination program—were impeded by the recurring waves of coronavirus infections, which eventually receded in March.
Fast forward to April 2022. A Jin Air flight from Busan, Korea, arrived carrying influencers to share their Guam experience. On YouTube, vlogs about Guam are making a comeback.
"The people of Guam are so sweet, they treat you like family, even if you met them just two minutes ago. People need to learn more about the true beauty of Guam,” said Ayaka Yamaguchi, former marketing executive and social media influencer who has made Guam her home for the past 20 years.
Tourism-related jobs vanished during the pandemic, and Yamaguchi was not immune. "A lot of us depend on tourism for our livelihood, and then suddenly, it was taken from us. My experience of being furloughed allowed me to see more of nature. I had so much time to go to places I've never been to."
Yamaguchi started sharing her adventures on Instagram. Her following grew organically by sharing her love of the island. The posts resonated with people who were unable to travel. "During the lockdown, I would go hiking and explore. A friend in Japan reached out to tell me that the Japanese man’amko in nursing homes were not allowed to go out or get visits from their loved ones."
Using Zoom, she took 30 Japanese man’amko along for a virtual hike. "Guam has a healing power to recharge your energy. I want to share that feeling."
Yamaguchi’s posts gained the attention of the Japanese travel show "Tabi (Travel) Salad." She was selected to host a two-part series that aired in 2021. In addition, she just finished scouting locations with producers of the Japanese reality show "Abema TV." The show will film on-island next month.
GovGuam launched the Work Experience Program through the American Jobs Center to get people back to work.
"Prior to the pandemic, our hospitality industry was the driver of Guam's economy with some 30,000 workers behind the wheel," Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said. "While we have invested heavily in diversifying our economy to secure sustainable revenue streams, our vision is that this sleeping sector will exponentially rebound and create thousands of job opportunities for the people of Guam."
Entry-level positions are available in foodservice, hotel operations and transportation. The jobs are temporary and pay minimum wage.
"There are a lot of opportunities out there,” said Mary P. Rhodes, president of the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association or GHRA.
GHRA is launching a free training program through the Guam Economic Development Authority that involves funding to help participants get a health certificate. “The program is available to new workers and former employees who need to get recertified–for free,” Rhodes said.
The Guam Visitors Bureau has resumed its campaign to revive the island as a destination for Korea and Japan. A delegation led by Carl T.C. Gutierrez, president and CEO of GVB, toured Korea and Japan to meet with travel agents, airlines, diplomats and national media. The goal is to get 200,000 passengers by the end of the fiscal year.
"That number of arrivals relies on airlines increasing flights to Guam. We need to schedule regular flights and not charter flights. The load factor needs to go up to 60 percent on average. Instead, what we've been seeing in the past two years are charter flights,” Rhodes said.
With calculated optimism, United Airlines will ramp up its service between Guam and Japan in the coming months as the Japanese government slowly eases its Covid-related restrictions.
Sam Shinohara, United’s managing director of airport operations for Asia/Pacific, said the island’s home airline will have nine flights a week between Guam and Japan in May. The frequency will increase to 11 flights a week in June.
“We are still far from where we were pre-pandemic,” Shinohara said. “Even just to Tokyo, we had 21 times a week. So we are a long way from being back to normal.”
While there is pent-up demand for travel, Shinohara said Guam can't be too complacent.Among the Asian destinations, Korea and Taiwan are Guam’s closest competition for the Japanese market. Taiwan’s borders remain closed, but Korea has reopened, making it Guam’s only competition at this juncture.
“Guam is ready,” Shinohara said. “But once Japan opens its doors, it doesn’t mean that they are ready only for Guam. They are ready to go anywhere so we need to make sure that we have the ability to differentiate ourselves and convince the Japanese traveling public to come to Guam.”
Some hotels used downtime for renovations and rebranding. The Sheraton Laguna Guam Resort has changed its management and name to the RIHGA Royal Laguna Guam Resort. RIHGA Royal is a well-known Japanese brand.
Hotel Nikko Guam is doing a brand refresh with "Effortless Eden,” which will extend beyond branding materials, said Yusuke 'William' Shinozaki, acting general manager of Hotel Nikko Guam. "They'll include the warmth of our hospitality, attentive and personalized service, and the feeling of ease on our property. Guam is a tropical paradise, and we want our guests to experience all that the property and island offer in a safe environment."
"The good news is that none of the hotels closed permanently. The hotels that closed temporarily due to the pandemic will reopen next month," said Rhodes.
"It's excellent that hotel companies are reinvesting into the island. The legislature is revisiting the qualifying certificates to give tax breaks to help renovate and refurbish the hotels. With this incentive, the hotels can upgrade rooms and refresh the properties' common areas."
Unfortunately, several restaurants have shut down during the ongoing pandemic. An unexpected benefit was born from limited indoor service. "Outdoor dining is a lot more popular than it ever was before. The pandemic introduced a lot of locals to eating outdoors. It's benefited the restaurant industry by increasing the number of tables available," Rhodes said.
Fundamentally, the pandemic showed that Guam is ripe to diversify its industries and sources of income. Until then, the resumption of the tourism industry is vital for Guam. Although the ongoing military buildup continues to bring economic benefits to the island, it's not a panacea to keep it metaphorically above water.
"It's been great, but even the military cannot replace 1.6 million tourists who visit Guam," Rhodes said.
Toru Takahashi, United’s managing director for Japan and Micronesia sales, said Japan's borders are expected to fully open by summer.
“Right now, I believe people do not have a specific destination in mind, they just want to travel, but Guam has always been a favorite destination for Japanese travelers,” Takahashi said.
s a beach destination, Takahashi said, Hawaii is Guam's competition for the Japanese market. But the island's proximity to Japan gives Guam an edge over Hawaii. "Guam is easier than Hawaii to make a trip," he said. "It's a three-hour-and-30-minute flight and easy to access from the airport to the hotel."
Japan had been Guam’s major source market for decades until the Covid-19 pandemic brought world travel to a standstill.
While Japan’s borders are not open yet, Shinohara said the Japanese government has a low-key policy that allows unrestricted travel for fully vaccinated individuals.
“It’s not widely publicized, but if you are a Japanese citizen and you are fully vaccinated with three shots and boosted, you can leave Japan and come back without any quarantine,” Shinohara said. “There is a fairly large number of people in Japan who are fully vaccinated that we will try to capture.”
The Japanese government currently discourages its citizens from embarking on international travels. Guam’s biggest competition right now is domestic tourism. Okinawa is a very popular destination for leisure travelers, Shinohara said.
“But it’s only a matter of time before they ease some of their restrictions,” he said. “Every month they relax some of their restrictions and the quarantine level for people entering the country.”
United hopes to see some spikes in bookings toward the middle or latter part of summer, Shinohara said. “In terms of normal, I am not exactly sure what it looks like. We are trying to be creative with the offerings that we have,” he said. “We are the only one serving Japan now. I am not sure what other carriers are going to do in terms of service capacity.” (With additional reports from Mar-Vic Cagurangan)