HAGÅTÑA (The Guam Daily Post) — Hotels are gearing up to house thousands of military personnel for multinational exercises for at least the next two to three months. The activity will help fill the economic void caused by the coronavirus pandemic, tourism industry officials said.
The timing of the anticipated military exercises, just months before the Sept. 11 complete pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, continues to fuel speculation about Guam's role should the United States decide to evacuate its allies in the country.
Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero has not received notice from any federal agency of Guam's possible role related to Afghan allies, according to Vera Topasna, executive director of the Community Defense Liaison Office.
Both the Guam Visitors Bureau and the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association said they can only speculate at this point whether the island will be used as a temporary refuge for thousands of Afghans while their visas to resettle in the U.S. are being processed.
This was also among issues raised at the GVB board meeting Thursday.
"We have been told to stay off the table first because this thing is...at the highest level. It's there, though," said GVB President Carl Gutierrez.
Gutierrez was governor of Guam when thousands of Kurdish refugees were evacuated from Iraq to Guam in 1996 during Operation Pacific Haven.
U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told national media organizations Wednesday that the Defense Department and the State Department are drawing up plans for the possible evacuation of Afghans whose lives are in danger because of their work for the U.S. government.
Whether or not that evacuation plan will involve Guam, the island's hotel and related industries have been preparing for the arrival of thousands of military personnel.
'More for military personnel'
Mary Rhodes, president of GHRA, said there are thousands of military personnel, including from foreign vessels, expected to stay at off-base hotels for military exercises, including one for June through July.
Sixteen Guam hotels have existing contracts with the military, she said.
While visitors from Guam's main tourism markets of Korea, Japan and Taiwan stopped visiting the island because of Covid-19-related travel restrictions, a number of hotels have remained open not only for local staycations but also for military personnel on short- or long-term stays.
"From what I understand, it's really more for military personnel, related to exercises around our region," Rhodes said of the anticipated increase in military personnel. "But it's not necessarily related to the Afghan refugee program."
Topasna said that during the summer months military exercises are held on Guam.
Based on previous experience, she said, Guam hosts 2,000 or more additional military personnel because of these exercises.
Joint Region Marianas, through its public affairs officer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rick Moore, said the office doesn't have enough specifics about future exercises to share information with the media.
Ben Ferguson, general manager of the Pacific Islands Club Guam, said there have been "inquiries" about possible military groups' use of hotels — not just PIC, but other hotels as well.
"So in terms of preparation, the hotels are gearing up with the idea that there's going to be that business, but a lot of it, to my knowledge, at this point, are inquiries," Ferguson said. "It's not actually on the books yet. That's typical for the military because they want to maintain flexibility."
Ferguson is also senior managing director for the PHR group of hotels that include the Hilton Guam Resort & Spa, Hotel Nikko Guam, Hyatt Regency Guam, Sheraton Laguna Guam Resort and Tsubaki Tower. He is also the vice chairman of the governor's Reopening Task Force.
Advocacy groups such as Human Rights First and some members of Congress said time is running out to process the special immigrant visa applications of thousands of Afghan interpreters and translators before the complete pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks that drew America into its longest war.
The groups are pushing for the evacuation of Afghan allies now, to places such as Guam. They said if Afghan allies were to be left behind in Afghanistan, they risk being slaughtered or hunted down by the Taliban and terror groups for helping the U.S.
In 1975 and 1996, the U.S. evacuated its Vietnamese and Kurdish allies, respectively, to Guam, while their permanent visa applications were processed, and advocates said the same can be done now for Afghan allies.
Human Rights First is leading the international, multisector push for evacuating Afghans. The group organized a letter from at least 15 veterans groups representing 3 million veterans in support of the evacuation and will be releasing more letters over the next few weeks, said Chris Purdy, project manager for Human Rights First's Veterans for American Ideals.
Keeping hotels open
Rhodes said a number of Guam hotels have maintained an occupancy of 20% to 30% during the pandemic because of military stays.
"Any additional military exercises in our region will help with our continued business with them, so it is a welcome relief since currently our tourism markets within Asia are not traveling — Korea, Japan, Taiwan. So the military has helped a lot of hotels continue operations and really helped during this pandemic," Rhodes told The Guam Daily Post.
Thousands of local residents are employed by hotels and related businesses. Those who lost their hotel jobs, are on furlough or have reduced hours continue to receive federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which ends Sept. 4.
Rhodes said hotels continue to call back employees when there is increased activity.
Hotels are not the only ones seeing economic activity, she said, but also restaurants and allied businesses.
Some tourism industry executives said if Guam has a role in the Afghan allies' evacuation, then the Afghan allies may only be allowed to stay on military bases. However, military personnel will be the ones staying at off-base hotels, they said.