'Vaccine snob' travelers flock to Guam for sun, sea and shots
Passport: check. Coronavirus test: negative. Temperature: normal.
Wearing an N95 mask and face shield, Jimmy Lin lugged his bag full of instant noodles and beachwear out of Guam's modest airport one recent afternoon.
"It feels kind of surreal being here," said the 37-year-old from Taiwan, who owns a ski resort in Japan that he hasn't visited since early 2020 because of travel restrictions. "I used to travel abroad at least every other month, and then suddenly the world was closed on me."
Like thousands of Asian tourists who have visited this American outpost in the Pacific since early this summer, Lin was in Guam to get his preferred coronavirus shots - Pfizer's messenger-RNA doses - under a vaccine tourism initiative designed to offset pandemic losses.
While an increasing number of tourism-reliant countries, such as Italy and Thailand, recognize vaccination records for travel, a vacation abroad remains off-limits for millions of the unvaccinated. Enter Guam, a U.S. territory with ample 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 to get doubly dosed equals an opportunity they can't always get at home because of supply shortages and access issues.
"I'm a vaccine snob," said Lin, who got his first Pfizer shot on Aug. 3 through Guam's government-sponsored "vacation and vaccination," or AirV&V, program, paying $100 for one dose. "Here in Guam I can choose the vaccine I want at an affordable price, but back in Taiwan, all I could do was wait for whatever is available, at who knows when."
Around the world, tourism-dependent places have come up with creative ideas to try to jump-start business devastated by the pandemic. Some have sought to lure digital nomads or allowed visitors to quarantine in resorts. Others have tried travel bubbles that have collapsed when new outbreaks have flared.
And while Guam's AirV&V initiative can go only a small way to redeeming lost tourist dollars - more than 1.6 million international visitors graced these shores in 2019 - businesses say it's worth a shot.
"Since the AirV&V program, we have started to see an increase in international guests from Taiwan, Korea and Japan," said Honoka Yamazaki, a planning manager at the high-end Tsubaki Tower, adding that room bookings and sales were up compared with last 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 to Guam and Palau.
Vaccine tourists book their shots online and often get them at a kiosk in the tourist center of Tumon, home to upscale hotels and luxury shops. Tech companies including TSMC, the world's largest chipmaker, have booked group tours for their employees, who arrive on charter flights and stay in a handful of designated AirV&V hotels.
Malls and restaurants in Guam's tourist hot spots have reopened in recent weeks as more locals have gotten vaccinated. And now, the modest inflow of tourists is encouraging other businesses to follow suit. To keep the arrivals coming, Guam officials have proposed giving a $500 shopping coupon to AirV&V vacationers.
"A full recovery may take a long time, but bringing the tourists back is a vital start to that recovery," said Anna Kao, owner of the beachfront Ocean Villa in Tamuning, a village abutting Tumon. Her guesthouse, which had to close for months in 2020 after a lockdown, reopened before Christmas and has seen 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 Guam officials eased restrictions this summer than coronavirus cases began to spike again in August. The local government on Monday reinstated mask mandates and social distancing rules. U.S. military facilities - including Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force Base - also reimposed mask requirements. Restaurants now require proof of vaccination for dine-in customers and have stepped up checks.
"The pandemic, as you can see, is not going anywhere any time soon," said Brandon Kinsella, a 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 roll out booster shots in coming weeks.
The new wave of infections has taken away some of the excitement for visitors longing for a sun-and-sand vacation. Some Taiwanese groups visiting Guam for vaccinations are choosing to quarantine themselves in their hotel rooms, emerging only for takeaway food.
"I don't want to get covid when I came here to get vaccinated against the virus," 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 at the instruction of a Mandarin-speaking local guide.
Guam has seen other crises before, and eventually recovered.
Accompanying his fiancee for three weeks of 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 scared many visitors and sent flight and hotel prices plummeting.
"South Koreans have outgrown the fear of North Korean missile threats and are now learning to live with the coronavirus," said Shin, an international law researcher at Yonsei University in Seoul.
South Korea, one of the island's top sources of tourists, is recording more than 1,000 infections a day. And while the outbreak in Guam - population 170,000 - is small compared with those elsewhere, vaccine tourists face other, more prosaic concerns.
"I've done everything that's still open to tourists, from shooting and hiking to jet skiing, kayaking, scuba diving and surfing," Lin, the Taiwanese resort owner, said the night before he headed home in late August, fully vaccinated, and into mandatory two-week quarantine.
"For someone who's used to city life, Guam feels like paradise, but only for the first week or two. If I had to spend longer here, I would probably get bored."