Guam could lose an additional 38,400 airline seats and 14,000 visitors because of travel cancellations from January to March over omicron variant concerns, just when the island's tourism started "turning the corner," Guam Visitors Bureau Vice President Gerry Perez told the GVB board on Thursday.
The island has seen thousands of passenger cancellations and lost thousands of airline seats in December as concerns grew over the coronavirus variant.
Omicron cases have been spreading rapidly in South Korea and Japan – two of Guam's largest sources of tourism – but the Asian countries continue to ramp up their vaccination efforts.
On Guam, the presence of the omicron variant has not been officially confirmed so far, but the number of COVID-19 cases has increased dramatically to as many as 500 a day, while the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths have been steady.
The lost airline seats include those from Asiana Airlines, which was supposed to resume its Guam service Dec. 23, 2021, but postponed to Jan. 30.
Recently, however, Asiana announced a "delay until further notice" over omicron-linked changes to entry restrictions and quarantine rules.
Asiana stopped flying the Guam route in 2003, and GVB was looking forward to a return after 19 years, but that's not happening soon.
Perez, however, told the GVB board, led by Chairperson Milton Morinaga, that the estimated 25% to 30% loss in airline seats and visitor trip cancellations still could "improve dramatically."
"Basically we're estimating about 38,000 lost seats from January to March. This may change, it could improve dramatically in February or March, but, as of December, this was what we're looking at in terms of loss of seats and roughly 14,000 pax," Perez said at GVB's first board meeting of the year.
GVB now expects 9,281 airline seats from South Korea alone in January and 11,344 in February, down from prior estimates.
Besides Asiana Airlines, Air Seoul also delayed its return to March 27. Most of the seats are from Korean Air.
'Turning the corner'
Before the omicron variant started impacting Guam's main tourism markets, arrivals to the island were on a steady increase compared to a year ago.
December 2021 arrivals reached 7,889 or nearly 479% more than December 2020 numbers, GVB data shows.
It's the ninth straight month of increased arrivals for Guam compared to a year ago.
As far as calendar year data, Guam saw only 78,514 arrivals from January to December 2021. That's a 76% decline from 2020, when there were still significant arrivals prior to COVID-19 slamming the tourism industry in late March 2020.
Perez said, despite the omicron threat, Guam's fiscal year-to-date arrivals are cause for optimism.
Between October and December 2021, Guam saw 23,920 arrivals, a 282% increase from a year ago.
"For the most part, you can see we're turning the corner in the first quarter and that gave us optimism for the second quarter until the omicron variant hit," Perez said.
Arrivals from Korea went from 157 in the first three months of fiscal 2021 to 6,058 in the first three months of fiscal 2022.
GVB data also shows arrivals from the United States mainland and Hawaii climbing to 12,776 in the first quarter of fiscal 2022, compared to 4,390 a year ago.
Another source of optimism for GVB is the ongoing arrival of Korean students to Guam on educational trips or to study English here for four to eight weeks.
Perez said more students are expected to arrive each month, for one or two months' stay.
He said the University of Guam also expects more than 100 Korean college students to arrive for the spring semester.