Ruins and recovery
Barely reemerging from Covid-19 that brought the economy to a near standstill, Guam’s recovery is now faced with another setback
By Dana Williams
A month after typhoon Mawar made international headlines by slamming into Guam as a Category 4 storm, there were signs of hope for an economy dependent on tourism.
A Lam Lam Tours bus was parked in front of the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica, with visitors scattered throughout the Plaza de Espana.
Fish Eye Marine Park announced a “Typhoon Recovery Promotion” for local residents and military, featuring a lunch buffet with observatory admission.
Behind the decapitated palm trees on Pale San Vitores Road, restaurants were open for business, and crews were removing scattered vegetation and debris from parks and other areas.
“I ran into a friend last night at a Chinese restaurant,” said Gerry Perez, Guam Visitors Bureau vice president, “who introduced me to two Japanese tourists who got here two, three days ago. And we’ve seen Korean visitors also here. So, it’s not the scale we’re used to right now, but not too shabby.”
Before the storm, business owners and tourism officials hoped the summer months would continue the steady rebound Guam has seen since South Korea lifted burdensome Covid-19 travel requirements last year. In early May, Japan reclassified Covid-19 to a sickness similar to seasonal flu, raising the likelihood of a visitor surge from that country, as well.
Instead of festivals, events and airplanes full of visitors, hoteliers and merchants were dealing with structural damage and a slew of cancellations.
But the news isn’t all bad.
“The early indication we have right now is that some of those canceled bookings, like for June and July, have not been canceled but pushed back and postponed to later in the year,” Perez said. “Which is really good for us, because we were afraid we were going to lose the peak period in July, August and September.”
Looking at airline seats from Korea, Perez said the island lost about 30 percent in May because of the storm, “and in June we’re only going to get about 25 percent of the seats, or roughly 12,000-13,000 seats. But then it ramped up rather quickly in July, so that by July and August we’ll get 80 percent to 90 percent of our seats back.”
By October or November, the island should be back to pre-typhoon tourism levels.
For now, the goal is to get businesses up and running by mid-July, so when visitors return to Guam, they have something to do. That’s why GVB began offering grants of up to $25,000 for small businesses that support the tourism industry. The bureau allocated $2 million for the Tourism Assistance Program, which received more than 500 applications. A key requirement is that the businesses have to reopen on or before July 15.
Mary Rhodes, president of the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association, said hotels operated throughout the disaster, providing lodging to foreign nationals, the military, federal contractors and first responders.
Although some hotels were damaged by the storm, managers have been working to make repairs. “Come mid-July, certainly all the hotels will be able to service guests,” Rhodes said.
For restaurants that aren’t yet open, Rhodes said the Tourism Assistance Program grant will help. The association is also hopeful that the Guam Economic Development Authority can roll out the second Local Employers Assistance Program soon.
Bill 75-37, which authorized LEAP 2, was signed into Public Law 37-15 on May 22. It appropriates up to $20 million ($15 million from excess revenue and $5 million from the American Rescue Plan). In the letter signing the bill, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero chastised the Guam legislature for increasing the local appropriation from $5 million to $15 million, saying the government had limited excess revenue.
“That’s extremely important because pre-typhoon, it was already signed into law,” she said. The plan was to get the program going before summer “so that we can have a lot of product offerings for the tourists, so that they can have a lot of satisfaction during their stay.”
On the other side of the globe, at the University of Central Florida, scholars conduct research on economic resilience after storms. Like Guam, Florida’s economy is tied to tourism, and storms regularly slam into the state.
In a 2021 study, a group from the university noted that “tropical cyclones impact the destination by inflicting physical damage to infrastructure, temporarily closing tourism operations, and requiring the evacuation of tourists, not to mention the ensuing damage to the destination's image.”
GVB’s Perez said Guam is fortunate because unlike Florida and Caribbean destinations, visitors here are familiar with typhoons.
Tourists from Japan and South Korea “can compare what we're doing versus the experiences that they've incurred in their own country,” Perez said. “When you see a major typhoon in Japan, for example, it is horrific, and it takes them a while to recover.”
Researchers point out that visitors don’t want to travel to areas perceived as unsafe, and Perez said, despite the intensity of the storm, people here remained safe.
“The big deliverable after a storm like that is there was no one killed. No serious injuries, even among stranded visitors on the island. We had about 5,000 stranded visitors,” Perez said. Although there was initial frustration and negative comments on social media, the sentiment “has morphed, particularly in Korea, from one of criticism in the early hours to one of appreciation, and a very positive vibe on how they were treated.”
Frustration in the immediate aftermath of the storm extended to residents and business owners. Mawar mangled the power system, which led to a cascade of other problems: communication gaps, water outages and confusion over boil-water requirements, high demand for fuel and long lines at gas stations.
According to a survey conducted by the Guam Chamber of Commerce, local businesses incurred damage costs ranging from US$10,000 to US$2 million, with subsequent losses as a result of protracted power, water and internet outages.
The chamber is hosting a July 7 summit to assess the impact of the storm and problems uncovered during the recovery process.
“I think we're all in agreement that there are infrastructure issues that we need to address as a community,” said Catherine Castro, president of the chamber. “We need to roll up our sleeves and not only be more prepared, but be able to bounce back quicker from a similar situation.”
Unfortunately, the island may have more chances to perfect its disaster recovery skills before the year is over.
National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Landon Aydlett said an El Niño advisory is in effect.
“We are expecting more activity this year,” he said. “Possibly similar to the 2015 season.”