Guam has relaxed most of its COVID-19 restrictions and looks to welcome back tourists by May, but the island remains unable to convince the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it is now a safe travel destination.
As of Monday, the CDC still listed Guam as a "very high" risk travel destination because of COVID-19.
Guam remains at level 4 on the CDC list, which tells travelers to "avoid all travel to Guam."
Guam's COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death rates have significantly declined, and is now among the leading areas on U.S. soil in terms of fully and partially vaccinating its population against the novel coronavirus.
Sen. Tony Ada pointed out Guam's unchanged CDC designation to Guam Visitors Bureau President Carl Gutierrez and other GVB officials during Tuesday's informational hearing on reopening tourism.
"We can say that Guam is the safest destination that our tourists can come, but when people Google our island, and they see that the CDC still has an issue with us, then I think that will counterattack what we're trying to do in bringing (back) tourists to Guam," Ada said at the hearing held by Sen. Amanda Shelton's tourism committee.
Ada asked whether Guam has asked the CDC to change its designation of Guam.
"It's not for lack of trying, believe me," Gutierrez told senators, adding this got caught up in federal bureaucracy.
The Department of Public Health and Social Services, he said, has been working on changing Guam's risk status. Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero also previously wrote to the CDC to clarify its ranking.
Most COVID-19 social and business restrictions have been relaxed and the governor has lowered Guam's Pandemic Condition of Readiness from 2 to 3.
Guam's COVID-19 Area Risk, or CAR, Score is 0.1 as of Tuesday, and has been very low since December 2020. The sustained, safe threshold is 2.5.
GVB finance officer Josie Villanueva, in responding to a question from Sen. Telo Taitague, said the bureau has not received allotments for three months of about $1.5 million.
Bureau officials look to receive a portion of the anticipated $661 million in federal direct pandemic relief to GovGuam, to go toward tourism reopening efforts.
Loosening up travel restrictions
GVB Vice President Gerry Perez told senators that the governor formed an interagency Tourism Reopening Task Force to look into loosening up what GVB believes to be "overly restrictive" travel protocols, such as a mandatory 14-day quarantine even for those who have tested negative for COVID-19 and received COVID-19 vaccination.
Perez said similar island destinations have regained 20% to 30% of their pre-COVID-19 arrivals, but Guam's has fallen short.
Without military and business travel to Guam since the start of the pandemic, Guam's arrivals would have been far worse.
"The one common denominator is that no quarantine is required with a negative PCR test," Perez said of the approach in other destinations.
On Guam, he said, "our local medical community is not quite comfortable with that."
The task force comprises representatives from GVB, Public Health, the A.B. Won Pat Guam International Airport Authority and the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association "working to modify current restrictive protocols," Perez said.
Perez said if the task force is able to ease travel protocols, GVB's revised projected fiscal year 2021 arrivals of 82,148 could go up to 107,000-plus or eve upward of 130,000.
"The market potential is there. Safety and costs remain top concerns across all markets," Perez said, especially for Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese travelers.
Shelton and other senators asked whether GVB could consider asking the policy committee on vaccination to also prioritize the COVID-19 vaccination for front-line workers of the tourism industry.
That could also be a good marketing tool to advertise Guam as a safe destination, because tourism workers are vaccinated, Sen. Chris Duenas said.
Perez said the task force's first formal meeting is today, which is mainly to designate "who needs to do what, when, where and how."
He also said the task force needs to craft a risk-proportionate policy that recognizes the need to keep Guam safe and allows travelers to visit safely. This was brought up during the last GVB board meeting as well.
Perez said the overarching issue is increasing the vaccination of the local community, and Guam officials have been expressing optimism in reaching herd immunity or vaccination of about 100,000 of the population by the summer.