Vaccine tourism finally approved; markets react favorably

Guam Visitors Bureau president and former governor Carl T.C. Gutierrez. (PNC file photo)

The decision didn’t come until later in the night.

But by 9:34 pm, Friday night, the Guam Visitors Bureau finally got word that Public Health had sent the go-ahead for GVB to launch its vaccine tourism program.

Under GVB’s vaccine tourism program, Guam will be marketed as a “vaccination destination” for American expatriates living and working in the Asia-Pacific, with the island being one of only a few places in the region with enough FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines.

Governor Lou Leon Guerrero had already given her blessing to the program and in fact wanted “Air V&V” to kick off this weekend.

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Moreover, the governor had already signed an executive order recognizing the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is the main vaccine used by South Korea and other tourism markets.

Final approval by the Department of Public Health and Social Services was the only remaining hurdle for the program to finally take off.

Public Health Medical Operations Chief Chima Mbakwem on Friday told members of the Governor’s Reopening Task Force that he is already comfortable with the program because the procedure ensures that vaccine tourists would have no contact with the general public.

Mbakwem said they were just tying up loose ends and that he expected to recommend the approval of the program to Public Health director Art San Agustin by the end of business Friday.

It took a few more hours than the end of the business day, but GVB President Carl Gutierrez said they finally got it done.

“We all sat down, GVB and Public Health, and finalized everything until 7 pm at the Hyatt. We didn’t let anybody get out until we finished discussing and finalizing the matter,” Gutierrez told PNC.

He added: “Chief of Staff Jon Calvo was there with us at the Hyatt to see things through the end. And I thank the chief of staff. I think he was assigned by the governor to make sure that nobody leaves until it was approved. It was done. And it was done because I wasn’t going to let anybody out of the meeting. I told them at the beginning of the meeting that there’s security outside. Nobody’s going to leave here until we reach a decision.”

With the vaccine tourism program officially launched, Gutierrez said they wasted no time informing Guam’s tourism markets that vaccine tourism is now allowed.

And the response, Gutierrez said, has been great.

“I can’t get off my phone. People are making all kinds of inquiries. People are making inquiries about, you know, the different shots and the questions that they have in their minds. They want to come here, even through charter flights, if there are no available regular flights. So yeah, it’s got a lot of interest, especially from Taiwan and the Philippines,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez said that even without a formal launch of the program, vaccine tourists were already coming to Guam on their own.

“Vaccine tourism is already a proven market and even with GVB not yet going full blast in marketing the program, a significant number of expatriates have already traveled to Guam on their own to get vaccinated,” the GVB president said.

He added that the vaccine tourism program is not a short-term project. Gutierrez said they expect the program to go on for maybe a year or two because it has a very unique value proposition and even a catchy name — “Guam Air V&V USA.”

Gutierrez said a lot of people are thanking the governor for giving her blessing to the vaccine tourism program.

“So Guam is poised to move forward. We would like to thank Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero, Public Health director Art San Agustin, and Chima for finally getting this thing to move forward,” Gutierrez said.

Under the vaccine tourism protocol, vaccine tourists upon arrival at the airport, will board special buses that will take them straight to their rooms, thus minimizing outside contact. Once they are inside their hotels, they will be serviced by hotel staff who have been fully vaccinated.

During the task force meeting, the members also discussed what would happen if a vaccine tourist tested positive.

If this happens, Mbakwem said contact tracing would be relatively easy because the vaccine tourists’ contacts are very minimal and only limited to the people in the bus with them and the hotel staff they have interacted with, who have all been vaccinated.

Those who test positive can either be isolated in their own rooms or taken into the GovGuam quarantine facility. But task force members said it may be better to just isolate the infected vaccine tourists inside their own hotel rooms to prevent further spread of the virus.

Gutierrez stressed that those coming for vaccine tourism would not get special treatment and would go through the same current existing protocols that other travelers go through. “Nobody will be coming in, not going through the same requirements and protocol as our people,” Gutierrez assured.

He added: “Vaccine tourists are required to have the same 72-hour COVID test requirement. When they arrive on Guam, they will go straight to their self-paid hotel approved by Public Health. They will be tested again when they arrive here and before they leave.”

The governor has also assured that whatever vaccine supply Guam has, the priority will always be the people of Guam. Vaccine tourists will only be accommodated if there are adequate supplies.