‘At home’ in Guam: Why more Pinoys are traveling to US territory

Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 30 2017 08:39 PM | Updated as of Nov 30 2017 10:45 PM

The view of Guam’s azure coast as seen from Fort Santa Agueda, a former Spanish fort on a hilltop in Hagåtña, among the island’s most popular spots. Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

TAMUNING, Guam—It’s like having a never-ending weekend. 

Everywhere you go in this United States territory in the Pacific, there is no sign of the jitters that hit just a few months ago, when a tyrant threatened to send a nuclear missile on this paradise of some 170,000 people.

Instead, the people of Guam are going on with their gentle lives, never letting even the gravest threat take away their sunshine. Like usual, the traffic is easy, the skies are open, the pace is slow — a respite from frazzled cities in other parts of the world. 

The rush and hustle could only be found inside Guam’s unbelievable abundance of malls, where remnants of the recent Black Friday sale could still be felt. 

On this tiny island that rose from the ruins of World War 2 some 70 years ago, life is laid back yet vibrant as ever. 

At just three and a half hours away from the Philippines and with its historical affinity with Filipinos, Guam is becoming an emerging destination for Pinoy travelers, representatives of the Guam Visitors Bureau (GVB) said in an interview here Monday.

“With three airlines now going to Guam, United Airlines, Philippine Airlines, and with the entry of Cebu Pacific into the market, we’re confident we’ll be able to invite more Pinoys,” Regina Nedlic, GVB’s marketing manager handling the Philippines, told Filipino journalists invited here to see what the island offers. 

Per GVB figures, tourist arrivals from the Philippines reached 20,000 from October 2016 to September 2017, an increase from the average 10,000 to 12,000 annually. 

The Philippines is among Guam’s six major tourist markets, along with Japan, Korea, the US mainland and Hawaii, China and Taiwan. GVB representatives said there has been a decline in Japanese tourists but an uptick in Korean and Philippine visitors. 

The bureau credits the increase in Filipino tourists to the low-cost carrier’s entry into the Manila-Guam-Manila route in March 2016. 

Cebu Pacific currently flies three times a week (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays) to Guam, at year-round affordable fares that go even lower at promo rates. 

The regular Manila-Guam flight costs $143.21 or P7,370.84, while the flight back costs $127.10 or P6,558.85.

The airline is set to offer a seat sale from Dec. 1 to 7 (travel period Jan. 1 to Mar. 31, 2018), with fares at P5,999 from Manila to Guam, and about P5,000 or roughly $100 for the flight back. 

Tourists are treated to a panoramic view of Guam’s coast at Two Lovers Point in Tamuning, another favorite lookout spot on the island. Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

Indeed, despite world-class beaches at home, more and more Filipinos are hoping to experience “America’s Asia,” where tourists can go crazy shopping one moment and head off to a beach or nature adventure the next. 

“Sa tinagal-tagal ko dito, ang daming Pilipino noong Black Friday (I’ve been here for a long time but I’ve never seen so many Filipinos on Black Friday),” said Gemma Rivera, sales associate at the T Galleria duty-free shopping mall. 

“[The] number 1 reason I think is because the tickets are cheap now,” said 49-year-old Rivera, who has been working and living in Guam for about two decades now.

She spoke to ABS-CBN News on Nov. 25, a day after Black Friday, when she saw several Filipino tourists line up at the luxury mall’s counters. 

“Many buy bags, watches,” Rivera said. 

Asked what she thinks draws Filipinos to Guam, she said: “Because there are many Filipinos (who live and work) here . . . the people are very friendly and it has many similarities with the Philippines. They’re at home here.” 

Chato Quitoriano, 61, who came to Guam 34 years ago, could say as much about the increasing number of Pinoys coming to the island as tourists. 

“More come on Black Friday. It’s cheaper here. There’s no tax,” said Quitoriano, a luxury-store clerk who has seen her share of Filipino celebrities at the duty-free shops.

Pinoys ‘at home’ in Guam 

Some parts of Guam look and feel very much like home, such as this ancient Chamorro village in Talofofo, southern Guam, where plants and animals endemic to the Philippines have thrived for centuries. Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

Some 26 percent of Guam’s 173,000 population is from the Philippines or of Pinoy descent, among them migrant workers and US citizens who descended from Filipinos who moved to the island decades ago. 

Some families trace their roots to Filipinos who came to Guam for the rebuilding in the wake of World War 2, when both the island and the Philippines rose from the shambles of the Japanese invasion, and even centuries earlier when both were Spanish colonies.

Guam was a stopover of the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco, Mexico. Animals and fruits endemic to the Philippines were shipped to the island, thriving in Guam’s similar weather and terrain. 

Having been under Spanish rule, people in the Philippines and Guam are predominantly Catholic.

Over the years, Filipinos have blended in, settling into the island’s familiar tropical climate and peculiar blend of rural and urban living. Philippine culture has become imprinted into island life. And today, Filipino influence is indelible: there are Filipino-language radio shows, a Philippine department store, and Filipino restaurants, among others. 

Visa waiver for Filipinos a constant call

Filipinos interested to visit Guam require a US visa. But there has been a constant effort to waive the visa requirement for Filipinos, if not relax the process, GVB representatives said. 

“It has always been an issue. There are pending petitions [for the visa] to be waived,” said Nedlic, adding that GVB has also been working towards making the visa process for Filipinos “easier and faster.” 

An all-in-one stop 

The Guam seal at the Paseo de Susana at the Hagåtña waterfront is a must-see for the island’s visitors. Looking at the installation from the perfect angle gives the viewer an image similar to the Guam seal as seen on its official flag. Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

What sets Guam apart from other beach destinations is that it offers a “package,” GVB representatives said. 

Within the tiny island, travelers can maximize their time and engage in numerous activities, from touring historical sights and going to the beach to bargain shopping and watching cultural shows within a day. 

“It’s not just a shopping destination,” said GVB Philippines’ Carmel Carpio.

Nedlic added: “There’s a lot to do on the island. We’re the largest in Micronesia.” 

Despite North Korea’s threat three months ago, there is nothing to worry about when traveling to the island. 

“Some say we’re now the safest place in the world because everybody is protecting us,” said Carpio. 

Nedlic said: “Generally, overall — we have two military bases here, the Air Force and the Navy — it (North Korea threat) doesn’t really affect us.” 

“I think Guam has been very resilient to these kinds of threats. We’ve been through World War 2, and security is our top concern,” she added.

Nedlic said the security concern even helped introduce Guam to wider markets, and GVB used the spotlight to full advantage as it received queries from those who had not heard of the island.

“We just say that we’re not affected, we’re fine, here we are!” said Nedlic.