A woman walks her dog on a beach in Tamuning, where more businesses are reopening due to Guam’s vaccination campaign and vaccine tourism. (Lyric Li / The Washington Post)
Passport: check. Coronavirus test: negative. Temperature: normal.
Wearing an N95 mask and face shield, Jimmy Lin dragged his bag full of instant noodles and beachwear out of the modest Guam airport one recent afternoon.
“It’s a bit surreal to be here,” said the 37-year-old Taiwanese who owns a ski resort in Japan he has not visited since early 2020 due to travel restrictions. “I used to travel abroad at least every two months, and then all of a sudden the world closed on me.”
Like thousands of Asian tourists who have visited this American outpost in the Pacific since early summer, Lin was in Guam to receive his favorite coronavirus vaccines – Pfizer’s messenger RNA doses – as part a vaccine tourism initiative designed to offset pandemic losses.
While a growing number of tourism-dependent countries, such as Italy and Thailand, recognize vaccination records for travel, vacations abroad remain banned for millions of unvaccinated people. Enter Guam, a U.S. territory with abundant vaccine supplies and no quarantine restrictions, where more than 80 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated. For residents of Taiwan, South Korea and elsewhere, three weeks on a tropical island plus the chance of receiving a double dose equates to an opportunity they cannot always have at home due to supply shortages. and access problems.
Diners show off their vaccination records and registered phone numbers before entering the Micronesia Mall food court on August 30, the day Guam reinstated a mask warrant and social distancing rules for indoor locations . (Lyric Li / The Washington Post)
Frances Nicdao, clinical nurse in charge of the American Medical Center in Guam, administers a dose of Pfizer vaccine to a Taiwanese tourist at the Hyatt Regency, a designated “vacation and vaccination” hotel. (Lyric Li / The Washington Post)
“I’m a vaccine snob,” said Lin, who received his first Pfizer vaccine on Aug. 3 as part of the Guam-sponsored “Vacation and Vaccination” program, or AirV & V, paying $ 100 for a dose. . “Here in Guam I can choose whatever vaccine I want at an affordable price, but back in Taiwan all I could do was wait for whatever was available, who knows when.”
Tourism-dependent places around the world have come up with creative ideas to try to revive businesses devastated by the pandemic. Some have sought to attract digital nomads or have allowed visitors to self-quarantine at seaside resorts. Others have tried travel bubbles which collapsed when new epidemics erupted.
And while Guam’s AirV & V initiative can do little to redeem lost tourist dollars – more than 1.6 million international visitors graced these shores in 2019 – companies say it’s worth it.
“Since the AirV & V program, we have started to see an increase in the number of international guests from Taiwan, Korea and Japan,” said Honoka Yamazaki, planning manager at the high-end Tsubaki tower, adding that room reservations and sales were up from last year. year.
Some 2,000 visitors from Taiwan, where only 4% of people are fully vaccinated, have visited Guam since the first charter flight on July 6, according to Taiwan’s Lion Travel, which operates tour groups in Guam and Palau.
Vaccinated tourists book their snaps online and often get them at a kiosk in the Tumon Tourist Center, which houses upscale hotels and luxury boutiques. Tech companies including TSMC, the world’s largest chipmaker, have booked group tours for their employees, who arrive on charter flights and stay at a handful of designated AirV & V hotels.
Shopping malls and restaurants in tourist hot spots in Guam have reopened in recent weeks, with more residents getting vaccinated. And now the modest influx of tourists is encouraging other businesses to follow suit. To keep the arrivals going, Guam officials have offered to give AirV & V vacationers a $ 500 voucher.
“A full recovery may take time, but bringing back tourists is a vital start to that recovery,” said Anna Kao, owner of the beachfront Ocean Villa in Tamuning, a village adjacent to Tumon. Her guesthouse, which had to close for months in 2020 after a lockdown, reopened before Christmas and saw more visitors from Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines this summer.
But even here, 1,500 miles from Tokyo and 4,000 miles from Hawaii, the pandemic is never far away.
No sooner had authorities in Guam eased restrictions this summer when coronavirus cases started to rise again in August. The local government reinstated mask warrants and social distancing rules on Monday. U.S. military installations – including Guam Naval Base and Andersen Air Force Base – have also reimposed mask requirements. Restaurants now require proof of vaccination for restaurant patrons and have stepped up checks.
“The pandemic, as you can see, is not going anywhere anytime soon,” said Brandon Kinsella, project coordinator for the AirV & V program. But, he said, “there will always be a need for vaccines and a market for travel.” Guam, like the rest of the United States, will be rolling out booster shots in the coming weeks.
The new wave of infections has taken some of the excitement away from visitors yearning for a vacation in the sun and sand. Some Taiwanese groups visiting Guam for vaccinations are choosing to quarantine themselves in their hotel rooms, only emerging for take-out.
“I don’t want to become covid when I came here to get my virus shot,” said Richard Chang, a recent retiree from Taipei, who had just received his second Moderna shot at the Hyatt Regency Guam and was clutching his arm against it. instruction from a local guide speaking Mandarin.
Guam has experienced other crises before and has finally recovered.
Accompanying his fiancee on a three-week vacation and vaccination, Shin Hee-seok, a South Korean scholar, said the delta variant reminded him of the North Korean missile threat to Guam in 2017, which frightened many visitors and drives down the prices of flights and hotels.
“The South Koreans have moved past the fear of North Korean missile threats and are now learning to live with the coronavirus,” said Shin, a researcher in international law at Yonsei University in Seoul.
South Korea, one of the island’s main sources of tourists, records more than 1,000 infections a day. And while the epidemic in Guam – 170,000 residents – is small compared to those elsewhere, vaccinated tourists face other more mundane concerns.
“I have done everything that is still open to tourists, from shooting and hiking to jet skiing, kayaking, scuba diving and surfing,” said Lin, the owner of the Taiwanese resort, said. the day before he returns home at the end of August, fully vaccinated and in compulsory quarantine for two weeks.
“To someone who is used to city life, Guam looks like heaven, but only for the first week or two. If I were to spend more time here, I would probably be bored.”