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Vaccine tourism offers hope to visitor industry workers

by editor

Guam tourism officials aren’t the only ones banking on the “vaccine and vacation” strategy to help revitalize the island’s economy.

Residents who work in the visitor industry are also hoping the lure of COVID-19 shots can attract tourists.

The program being pitched by Guam Visitors Bureau is similar to vaccine tourism plans in other places.

In early May, during a COVID-19 press conference, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to open mobile vaccination sites around the city for tourists in time for the summer. Other states, such as California, Colorado and Nevada, along with New York, don’t require proof of residency to receive a vaccine.

Travel companies in Thailand sell vaccine and vacation travel packages for upwards of $2,300 per person, Reuters news service reported. Packages include round-trip flights to the U.S. and what the tour companies say is a guaranteed dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Jed Espino is hopeful that vaccine tourism will help the island attract visitors.

The Maldives Ministry of Tourism announced its new tourism marketing initiative, “3V,” or “visit, vaccine, and vacation” this month. The government of the Maldives announced all non-vaccinated tourists will receive a vaccine upon arrival starting in June.

The Guam Visitors Bureau is calling its program “Air V&V,” for “vaccine and vacation.” The hope is it could revitalize Guam’s tourism industry by offering COVID-19 vaccination and vacation packages to tourists.

GVB President and CEO Carl Gutierrez has said the next phase of “Air V&V” may allow non-U.S. citizens to come to Guam to get FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines while vacationing.

Guam allows non-Guam residents who are U.S. expatriates to come to Guam to get the vaccine for free. With the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, only one dose is needed. With the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, visitors could stay as long as a month, pumping money into Guam’s economy.

The program could eventually include offering vaccine and vacation packages to non-U.S. citizens under different price ranges.

Residents hopeful

The decline in visitors has crushed many businesses in the tourism industry.

“In the hotel industry, our guest numbers have dropped completely and is still nonexistent,” said hotel worker Jed Espino. “A huge drop in revenue overall.”

Residents who have lost their jobs due to the lack of tourists are hopeful “Air V&V” will revive Guam’s lagging tourism industry.

“It has impacted me dramatically,” said Dededo resident Joshie Camacho, who lost her job after the pandemic hit. She was employed at a now-closed bar in Tumon. She said more than two-thirds of the customers were tourists from Japan and South Korea.

“It was my only source of income,” she said.

Michaelyn Arriola, a Grab N’ Grub driver who lost her previous job due to the lack of visitors, said she is hopeful about vaccine tourism.

Michaelyn Arriola, who lost her previous job due to a decline in tourism, hope the proposed vaccine tourism  program brings visitors back to the island.

“I think it’ll help with the local businesses,” she said. “I feel that sales would go up if there was tourism because there will be more people.”

While more than half of Guam’s adult population has been vaccinated, the rollout of vaccines has been extremely slow in some Southeast Asian countries. The program would target countries where there is a long wait for vaccines, countries where the distribution of the vaccines is slow and countries where there is a vaccine shortage.

Espino believes the incentive of receiving the vaccine could be beneficial for Guam’s tourism industry.

“I feel that this would encourage our target markets to come and visit Guam again,” he said.

Medical tourism

The global trend toward vaccine tourism reflects how medical tourism has changed.

Previously, people in the U.S. would travel to other countries for medical procedures. Guam residents would often go to the Philippines or other countries in Asia. Medical tourism has now reversed, with residents of Asia aiming to travel to the U.S. to get vaccinated.

Gutierrez hopes Guam will be able to capitalize on this flipped trend.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea was one of Guam’s biggest tourist markets. At the start of fiscal year 2020, South Korean tourists accounted for about 50% of all visitor arrivals.

The South Korean government has been criticized by its citizens for its slow distribution of vaccines. Reuters reported Friday that about 5.1% of the population has been fully vaccinated.

The South Korean government in a May 17 press release said approximately 835,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been recently purchased.

“Air V&V” could place Guam in an advantageous position by marketing to South Koreans who may not want to wait to receive a vaccine, or for those who may want access to other vaccines other than AstraZeneca.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently raised Guam’s travel risk from level 3 to level 4, or very high.

The Pan American Health Organization has expressed concerns about countries that have eased travel restrictions for the sake of medical tourism. During a COVID-19 webinar hosted by the group, Dr. Sylvain Aldighieri, the agency’s COVID-19 incident manager, said the full impact of the vaccines isn’t known and being vaccinated doesn’t mean that infection will not occur, and so countries should proceed with “utmost caution.”

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