On Tuesday afternoon in Taipei about 170 persone, some dressed in hazmat suits and face shields, boarded a plane bound for the Pacific island of Guam.
The sold-out flight was a package holiday with a Covid twist: dubbed “Air V&V” (vacation and vaccination), Guam is capitalising on its abundance of vaccines to revive its tourism industry, and Taiwan’s residents are the first customers.
Guam, a US territory in Micronesia, announced the tours in June, with the campaign pitch “vacation while you wait”.
The island has fully vaccinated about 75% of its adult population. Taiwan, suffering major shortages, has given at least one dose to just over 10% and fully vaccinated about 0.2%.
The first four Air V&V tours from Taiwan, carrying a total 439 travellers, have sold out.
“This program captures a unique demographic of travellers around the world that are tired of waiting to get vaccinated in this pandemic,” Carl Gutierrez, president of the Guam Visitors Bureau in Guam, said in June.
“This will give a shot in the arm to our tourism industry through this unique and valuable service, offering more opportunities to put our people back to work and get our economy roaring again.”
The program involves a dozen hotels, hosting travellers while they receive the Pfizer, Moderna or single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines from Guam’s private clinics. Taiwanese people can book on one of 10 tours, ranging from five to 22 giorni, getting the first shot on the day after they touch down before freely touring the country.
The most popular vaccine so far is Moderna, chosen by 38% of people with bookings, followed by Pfizer at 34% and Johnson & Johnson at 23%, the major Taiwan travel agency Lion Travel said on Tuesday.
In Taiwan, multiple factors have led to major shortages in doses, worsened by the island’s first major outbreak of the pandemic, beginning in April.
Authorities are rushing to vaccinate people in order of priority groups but have been hindered by low supplies, alleged foreign intervention by China and hesitancy fuelled by fake news.
Data released by Lion Travel suggested Guam’s offering was proving most popular among those in Taiwan who have little hope of getting a local vaccine soon. Lion Travel’s general manager, Andy Yu, said almost 73% of bookings were for people aged under 49, with the biggest cohort aged 20 per 29 e 40 per 49.
Other regions, including Bali and the Maldives, have flagged similar ventures, but Guam is among the first to actually receive travellers.
Ahead of the first flight arriving on Tuesday afternoon, there was a mixture of excitement and anxiety among hotel employees preparing for the incoming guests and the reopening of Guam’s tourism.
“We are hiring additional people in anticipation of large number of arrivals,” said Maria Teresa Reyes-Burrier, food and beverage director at Lotte Guam Resort.
“We are implementing protective and mitigation measures and we are training new hires to make sure they are familiar with the Covid-related guidelines in place," lei disse.
“The reopening of tourism is something we look forward to and we are hoping it will be safe for our incoming guests and our employees.”
Jen Vee, 25, a store attendant at Hyatt Regency Guam’s gift shop, said she was still “pretty nervous about Covid” but looked forward to the revival of Guam tourism.
“This is good news for many people who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. It’s exciting but still pretty scary at the same time.”
There might be some concern among employees about the arrival of unvaccinated passengers, but Chito De Guzman-Aguilo, marketing manager at Guam Reef Resort and Spa, disse: “It’s just a matter of ensuring that protocols and guidelines are implemented effectively and efficiently.”
Lion Travel’s Yu said more than 80% of tickets for the first 22-day-long tour had sold. He didn’t say how many cancellations there had been following last week’s reintroduction of self-paid hotel quarantine for returning travellers in Taiwan.
The Air V&V package tours start at around US$1,400 for flights and hotels but don’t cover the cost of pre-departure Covid tests – required to bypass Guam quarantine – or the vaccines, which add hundreds of dollars. On Taiwanese social media many commenters expressed anger at the vaccine access for those who could afford it while compatriots at home had to wait and hope.
“So is it that you can get vaccinated abroad if you’re rich, otherwise you have to wait or die in Taiwan,” said one.
“This means the government is incompetent and it’s the people who have to save themselves,” said another.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has lowered Guam’s Covid exposure risk to a moderate level, and daily Covid-19 infections have been low.