In this remote U.S. outpost, pandemic recovery is a distant dream

TAMUNING, Guam – Perched just steps from the prismatic seas off the west coast of Guam, a water sports shop was closed on a recent weeke...


TAMUNING, Guam – Perched just steps from the prismatic seas off the west coast of Guam, a water sports shop was closed on a recent weekend morning, its rack of neon kayaks and fleet of jet skis picking up fallen leaves .

At the end of an oceanfront road in the tourist district of Tumon, the Hyatt Regency’s gift shop displayed its beach floats and spinning tops in total darkness. Nearby, a shopping plaza adorned with miniature lampposts had only one guest: a stray dog ​​sunbathing in the tropical heat. Worn posters on its walls advertised a TV series premiered last year.

“The hustle and bustle here has just evaporated,” said Madelaine Cosico, Hyatt’s director of sales and marketing.

While much of the United States has reverted to something that looked like pre-coronavirus life, the tiny US territory of Guam in the Western Pacific is stuck in time. A year and a half after the start of the pandemic, the island’s tourism-dependent economy remains crippled, and officials say a full recovery is likely years away.

South Korean and Japanese visitors who once flocked to Guam for its year-round sunshine and luxury shopping are long gone, and with their home countries now in the throes of their worst Covid outbreaks, they won’t be returning. not so soon. The island’s economy shrank to 18.9% in 2020 and would have contracted to 49% without federal help in the event of a pandemic, according to economists’ estimates at the University of Guam.

Recovery, island leaders believe, begins with vaccination. Its population of 170,000 has reached the government’s target of an 80% vaccination rate among adults by July, the same month it lifted quarantine requirements for foreign tourists. He also kept hide mandates, and compliance is almost universal. Most companies require customers to register their contact details, and even small hotel elevators have floor marks for social distancing.

The government has also invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a program that aims to attract tourists by promising them not only vacations, but also vaccinations. The program, called Air V&V, offers visitors the choice of any of the CDC-approved vaccines for $ 100 or less per dose.

By the end of August, at least 2,100 vaccinated tourists will have arrived on chartered planes, according to the Guam Visitors Bureau, in addition to a relatively small number of others on scheduled flights. But that’s little consolation on an island that recorded 1.7 million arrivals the year before the pandemic began.

“It’s not even a drop in the bucket,” said Bob Odell, owner of a watersports store called Guam Ocean Adventures. “I don’t think anyone here is doing well.

The island had hoped to attract people from Japan and South Korea, where vaccination campaigns have fallen behind, but infrequent flights and strict quarantine requirements at their homes have driven people away.

“It’s an obstacle to real growth,” said Gerry Perez, vice president of the visitors’ bureau. “We have a program of organizers who try to put butt in the seats of the planes.”

All of those arriving on charter flights were from Taiwan, where vaccines have been hard to come by and travel agencies were quick to capitalize on the offer.

Taiwanese visitor Yulin Lin was hiding from the sun under a bright orange gazebo one day, watching his teenage daughters take selfies before stepping into a translucent lagoon. Attached to their scuba gear, they made their way to the marine life that had passed the underwater craters named after the bombs of World War II.

Ms. Lin took her family to Guam to get their Pfizer vaccine before the start of the school year, spending thousands of dollars on a travel package that included a stay at the all-inclusive Pacific Islands Club. When she returns home, she will have to spend at least an additional $ 2,000, she said, on a government-mandated quarantine at a hotel.

“I think it’s good for them to be outside again. They are not just locked in the house in the city, ”Ms. Lin said of her daughters. “I expected a lot of things to be closed so we’ll have to come back here.”

Across the island, only a few businesses said they noticed the small increase in the number of tourists. Rather, many rely on regular shipments of US servicemen arriving on short-term assignments. Others said the reopening was just too expensive for such a small clientele.

At the Hyatt Regency, where the sprawling lobby bistro has only a few small tables in use and the nightclub has been shackled for months, around 100 full-time and part-time staff have been laid off during the pandemic.

Several gas stations have shortened their opening hours and some car rental companies have either sold their inventory or started renting vehicles to local residents at a reduced rate. Independent taxi drivers have decided to find other work, and the local ridesharing app, Stroll Guam, frequently informs users that there are no more drivers.

About 60% of the island’s income came from tourism in 2019, and Guam has lost $ 200,000 in income per hour from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan since the start of the pandemic, Mr. Perez, responsible for tourism.

“We think we will recover, but we will not recover very quickly. Not for at least maybe two or maybe three years, ”he said. “If the gods are with us, we should be able to accommodate 80,000 visitors for the next fiscal year. That would be less than 5% of Guam’s usual annual influx.

Immunization, both of the local population and of visitors who need it, is a first step.

Standing in the basement of the Pacific Islands Club one recent day, Kai Akimoto guided a group of Taiwanese tourists to a row of black tables, where nurses were waiting to give them their injections. He’s been working six or seven days a week for months now, he said, coordinating immunization programs for the American Medical Center, a local clinic.

“We are a community that is not so afraid to get vaccinated. We don’t have so many people who have qualms about it here, ”Akimoto said. “Their qualms are that Guam is still closed. And if this is the ticket to get back to work and get the economy going, then they want people to get vaccinated. “

Down the street, the once popular Guam Reef Hotel catered for a small group of patrons, its lobby and infinity pool nearly empty on a weekend.

Jason LaMattery, the hotel’s guest service coordinator, said the number of guests fell about 98% between early 2020 and early 2021. In addition to military visitors, the hotel has hosted a small number of vaccinated tourists .

“Things are starting to improve,” he said. “We are slowly recovering from a terrible situation. But are we going to get 100, 200 people out of it? No, I do not think so.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: In this remote U.S. outpost, pandemic recovery is a distant dream
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