Guam Visitors Bureau officials revised their fiscal 2021 forecast from 251,000 arrivals to 400,000, but it's still a steep drop from the record-breaking 1.6 million tourists who visited the island in fiscal 2019.
With that also came a revised GVB budget proposal of $9.2 million for fiscal 2021, a steep cut from the $22 million budget it proposed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, the board reduced the current fiscal year's budget from about $22 million to $12 million.
GVB presented the revised fiscal 2021 figures to Sen. Joe San Agustin's appropriations committee during Wednesday's public hearing on GVB's 2021 budget request.
Former governor and current GVB President Carl Gutierrez told senators that the bureau plans to meet with Hawaii Gov. David Ige and other state officials to outline a partnership that Gutierrez said he hopes will allow Guam's inclusion in a list of accepted destinations for Japanese tourists during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We are trying to ride on the coattails of Hawaii by partnering with them," Gutierrez said. "As a community, we have done an excellent job combating the pandemic and instituting health and safety protocols in the new normal of doing business. We now need to focus our efforts in persuading the government of our key markets – Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – to lift their travel restrictions and nonessential travel advisories for Guam."
Sen. Therese Terlaje asked GVB officials whether Guam did something wrong and whether it can be fixed so it can also be included in Japan's planned list of safe travel destinations.
Tourism contributes some $2.5 billion a year to the local economy and $260 million in government taxes. It employs 34% of Guam's workforce. With tourism nearly at a standstill, those jobs and revenue are lost.
Gerry Perez, GVB vice president, said "$200,000 per hour is what this island is losing by not having tourism."
Gutierrez said a GVB survey found that many in Japan will not travel if they have to be tested, "so we don't know how good that is in that bubble."
"But to be sure, we would like to ride on the coattails of Hawaii that we're in the process right now, since yesterday, trying to be able to go over there with Dr. Mike Cruz, to see Gov. Ige and the Senate and the House to be able to appeal to them to include Guam in that bubble. Japan, I think, would really look very favorably at that," he said.
Perez said the bureau had been talking about a travel bubble with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan since June.
GVB came up with an agreed-upon forecast of 400,000 tourist arrivals from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021, taking into account health and safety protocols and source markets' statuses.
Perez and Gutierrez said Guam, as a U.S. territory, is still being lumped together with the rest of the United States which is considered a high-risk COVID area, although Guam's cases and hospitalization rates are lower than most jurisdictions in the mainland.
Guam has eased the 14-day quarantine for anyone traveling from a low-risk area, but arriving passengers staying on Guam for more than five days have to get tested on day five.
Anyone from a low-risk area and staying on Guam for less than five days will also be subject to testing.
In its budget presentation, GVB officials, including finance and administration director Josie Villanueva, asked senators to help by:
- Supporting and approving the refinancing of hotel occupancy tax bondS to reduce the bureau's debt service from $7 million to $4.2 million in 2021;
- Allowing GVB to keep its carry-forward amounts to assist it in its recovery efforts;
- Amending GVB's enabling legislation to, among other things, allow management to expend funds up to $24,999 without getting board approval. Right now, expenditures above $1,000 need board approval under Guam law; and
- Allowing GVB to keep 80% of the Tourist Attraction Fund, and 20% subject to the Legislature's appropriation. GVB's budget comes from the TAF, which gets its money from the hotel occupancy tax.
GVB projects TAF collections of $13 million for fiscal 2021. Subtracting the debt repayment, that leaves $9.2 million.
Bureau officials also discussed with senators ongoing activities and plans to prepare for Guam's tourism reopening. However, there is no new date after the governor scrapped a July 1 reopening. Local tourism and marketing staycations for local residents and the military was also a part of the discussion.