On Tuesday afternoon in Taipei, about 170 people, some dressed in hazmat suits and face shields, boarded a plane bound for the Pacific island of Guam.
The sold-out flight was a vacation package with a Covid twist: nicknamed “Air V&V” (vacations and vaccinations), Guam is capitalizing on its abundance of vaccines to revive its tourism industry, and residents of Taiwan are the first customers.
Guam, a US territory in Micronesia, announced the tours in June, with the “vacation pending” campaign pitch.
The island has fully vaccinated about 75% of its adult population. Taiwan, suffering from severe shortages, administered 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 of 439 travelers, sold out.
“This program captures a unique demographic of travelers around the world who are tired of waiting for vaccines in this pandemic,” Carl Gutierrez, chairman of the Guam Visitors Bureau in Guam, said in June.
“It will give our tourism industry a boost with this unique and valuable service, providing more opportunities to get our people back to work and jumpstart our economy.”
The program involves a dozen hotels, accommodating travelers while they receive Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson single-injection vaccines from private clinics in Guam. Taiwanese can book on any of 10 tours, ranging from five to 22 days, getting the first photo the day after they land before freely touring the country.
The most popular vaccine to date is Moderna, chosen by 38% of those who booked, followed by Pfizer at 34% and Johnson & Johnson at 23%, Taiwan’s leading travel agency Lion Travel said on Tuesday.
In Taiwan, multiple factors led to significant dose shortages, exacerbated by the island’s first major pandemic outbreak, starting in April.
Authorities are rushing to vaccinate people in order of priority groups, but have been hampered by low supplies, alleged foreign intervention from China and hesitation fueled by fake news.
Data released by Lion Travel suggests that Guam’s offer is proving to be the most popular among those in Taiwan who have little hope of getting a local vaccine anytime soon. Lion Travel chief executive Andy Yu said nearly 73% of bookings were to people under 49, with the largest cohort aged 20-29 and 40-49.
Other regions, including Bali and the Maldives, have reported similar plans, but Guam is among the first to receive travelers.
Before the arrival of the first flight on Tuesday afternoon, there was a mixture of excitement and anxiety among hotel workers preparing for incoming guests and the reopening of Guam tourism.
“We are hiring additional people in anticipation of a large number of arrivals,” said Maria Teresa Reyes-Burrier, director of food and beverage at Lotte Guam Resort.
“We are implementing protection and mitigation measures and training new hires to make sure they know the Covid-related guidelines in place,” she said.
“The reopening of tourism is something we look forward to and hope it will be safe for our incoming guests and employees. “
Jen Vee, 25, a store clerk at the Hyatt Regency Guam gift shop, said she was still “quite nervous about Covid” but looked forward to the revival of tourism in Guam.
“This is good news for many people who lost their jobs during the pandemic. It’s exciting but still quite scary at the same time.
Employees might be concerned about the arrival of unvaccinated passengers, but Chito De Guzman-Aguilo, marketing director at Guam Reef Resort and Spa, said, “It’s just about making sure that protocols and guidelines are implemented effectively and efficiently.
Yu of Lion Travel said more than 80% of tickets for the first 22-day tour have been sold. He did not say how many cancellations there were after the reintroduction of self-paid hotel quarantine for travelers returning to Taiwan last week.
Air V&V package tours start at around US $ 1,400 for flights and hotels, but do not cover the cost of pre-departure Covid testing – needed to bypass the Guam quarantine – or vaccines, which add up to hundreds of dollars. On Taiwanese social media, many commentators expressed their anger over access to the vaccine for those who could afford it while compatriots at home had to wait and hope.
“So can you get vaccinated abroad if you are rich, otherwise you have to wait or die in Taiwan,” one said.
“It means the government is incompetent and it’s the people who have to run away,” said another.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reduced the risk of exposure to Covid in Guam to a moderate level, and daily Covid-19 infections have been low.