GVB revives proposal to pay for tourists’ COVID tests

Tourists at the Guam airport. (PNC file photo)

The proposal to pay for tourists’ COVID-19 tests prior to their return to their home countries was revived again during Thursday’s Guam Visitors Bureau meeting.

The plan was already proposed during GVB’s previous board meeting last April 7 and was touted as an incentive for more tourists to visit Guam.

The plan was to offer the free testing only on a limited run in order to save as much money as possible.

However, GVB president Carl Gutierrez shot down the idea, warning that offering an introductory free COVID-19 testing promo and then suddenly stopping would be akin to just “teasing” the tourists which could later backfire on the bureau in terms of negative publicity.

“You get people used to something and it’s not there … this becomes a negative situation, just to lure them here … I don’t know ….” Gutierrez said.

It was also pointed out that GVB was in a budget crunch right now and can’t afford to subsidize any “return” COVID testing.

But during Thursday’s GVB board meeting, former GVB chairman Sonny Ada made a motion to revisit the proposal. “By and subject to the availability of funds. I put a motion forward that we pursue financial support for testing our tourists returning back to their home country,” Ada said.

GVB board member Sam Shinohara, who is a member of the tourism reopening committee, said there’s wide industry support for the notion of trying to figure out a way to pay for some testing for a period of time.

“And so I kind of want to throw it back out there on the table as a discussion point. Obviously, funding is an issue, but we’re trying to figure out a way to fund it,” he said.

He added: “Certainly, let’s be clear, there’s no way that this can be a sustainable expense for us. But we need something that is going to have tourists look our way and get them in the door. And I think it’s priceless marketing dollars if we can find a way to do it.”

Shinohara also said having free COVID tests for returning tests for a limited period of time would be a great way to jumpstart tourism when Guam reopens and distinguish Guam from other markets that are trying to do the same thing right now.

He also answered the warning that offering an introductory free COVID-19 testing promo and then suddenly stopping could backfire on GVB and result in negative publicity. Shinohara pointed out that airlines and hotels do limited-time promotions all the time and tourists already know and accept this practice.

“The reality is, that’s the way we sell. Sometimes, hotel rooms or airline seats are on sale, and it’s for a limited time only. We just need to make sure that we’re explicit in the marketplace. We don’t want to create a false expectation. We’ll say outright that 1,000 free tests are the only ones we can afford to pay,” he said.

New GVB board member Ho Eun, however, warned that there must also be a basis and a justification for spending millions of dollars on free COVID testing for returning tourists since GVB will be using government money.

“What is the basis? There must be a formula for justifying spending millions of dollars. Shouldn’t we consult experts so we can get better information and make better decisions? … Let’s say we spend $10 million for that … what do we get for that amount of money,” Eun asked.

GVB chairman Milton Morinaga also said that before anything else, Guam must know what kind of COVID tests are accepted in GVB’s primary tourist markets of Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. He said what is the use of offering free COVID tests if these tests are not accepted in the countries of the tourists coming home?

To save GVB from expending precious resources, it was suggested that the bureau approach Adelup and ask for funding since GovGuam is about to receive some $630 million in federal assistance.

It was also suggested that perhaps GVB doesn’t need to buy COVID-19 tests and it can just make use of the existing COVID-19 test kits held by the Department of Public Health and Social Services.

DPHSS director Art San Agustin confirmed that GVB and his agency are already talking about this plan.