Visiting Guam: A bit of history and a whole lot of shopping

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By Zsarlene B. Chua

Despite being a US territory, the small island of Guam in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has quite a number of similarities with the Philippines, from its shared history under Spanish and American colonial rule to the sheer number of people with Filipino heritage living on the island.

The Guam Visitors Bureau (GVB) estimates that almost a third of the island’s population of 170,000 are Filipinos, making it the second largest ethnic group in the country after the native Chamorros.

In fact, as the media group invited by Cebu Pacific pointed out the moment we exited the airport, Guam feels almost like home with some pointing out how similar the island looks to Subic, Zambales — mainly due to the larger roads, its being so near the coast, and because Subic was once home to one of the largest US military facilities outside the mainland.

“Hafa adai,” (pronounced like “half a day”) is how Guamanians greet tourists using the native Chamorro term for “hello,” but as we eventually realized after spending four days in Guam last November, the greeting can serve as an answer to how long it takes to go around the island — it takes just half a day as Guam has a total land area of just 543.9 square kilometers. In comparison, the entire Metro Manila encompasses 619.6 square kilometers.

The written history of the Philippines pretty much started the moment Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed on Homonhon island in Eastern Samar on March 16, 1521. And while Magellan died in Cebu just a month later after battling Datu Lapu-Lapu in Mactan, his actions started the more than three centuries of Spanish colonial rule.

But 10 days before reaching Homonhon, Magellan and his crew had already landed in Guam. Guam became a Spanish colony in 1565.

Located on the southwest side of the island is Umatac Bay, the bay where Magellan and his fleet of five ships landed on March 6, 1521. The silent waters of the bay, as well as the cliffs surrounding, were witness to how five ships from the other side of the world started what turned out to be centuries of rule under the kingdom of Spain.

There are no statues on the bay to commemorate this event save for a plaque telling the story of how Magellan, despite being welcomed by the Chamorros, deigned to repay their kindness by burning down their homes and killing them.

Guam eventually became an important stopover for the Manila Galleons — the fleet of trading ships plying the route of Manila, Philippines to Acapulco, Mexico — and in the process, many crops and livestock from the archipelago made it to Guam, including carabaos.

Beyond the Spanish connection, Guam and the Philippines were both under American rule and while the Philippines eventually gained its independence, Guam remains a territory of the United States of America.

Guam — like the Philippines — paid the price for its American connection when it became a fierce battleground in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War. Some historians claim that the battle for Guam in 1944 cost the lives of 10% of the population of Guam.

This dark part of the island’s history is well documented in the Pacific War Museum located in the capital, Hagatna, using new technology and existing film footage to chart the battle, as well as reproductions of local newspapers bearing the headlines of the start of war and its end.

Lest anybody think Guam is just a tropical island filled with beaches, resorts, and history, Guam is also a haven for shoppers as the group learned, having arrived on the island a day after Black Friday — one of the biggest shopping days in the US.

Over the course of our four-day stay, no day was spent without visiting the island’s biggest shopping malls including KMart and Guam Premier Outlets in Tamuning, T Galleria in Tumon, and Micronesia Mall in Dededo.

GVB has taken advantage of the surfeit of shopping options by introducing the Shop Guam Festival, an annual event that lists all the best deals during the holidays via a dedicated app.

Do note that if you make a point of going to Guam during the Black Friday weekend (the weekend after Thanksgiving) you might be able to score crazy deals, like a $90 Michael Kors tote (originally priced at $200), or a medium-sized piece of Samsonite luggage for less than $100, or Nine West shoes for half the price — but prepared to see everybody in the malls as well.

Lines will be long and, in the case of Ross Dress for Less, which carries branded apparel and other items at discounted prices, be prepared to see racks picked clean. For this writer, lining up at KMart and Ross Dress for Less in the wee hours of the night on a Monday was still a test of endurance.

Being a US territory in the middle of the Pacific, Guam is in turns a tropical vacation spot and a stronghold for the super power. In fact, almost 30% of the island’s total land area (16,000 hectares) is under the control of the US military.

And because of its strategic location and the presence of military bases, Guam found itself the focus of threats from North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, as the strongman declared last August that his country was testing an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) which could reach Guam to counter the military drills being held between the US and South Korea at the time.

But North Korea’s threat has — according to Regina Nedlic, GVB marketing manager for the Philippines and Russia — had not deterred tourists from visiting nor alarmed locals.

“Generally, overall — we have two military bases here, the Air Force and the Navy — it (North Korea threat) doesn’t really affect us,” she told the media during a press conference in November.

“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, explaining that it actually seemed as if the threats helped Guam’s tourism industry largely due to the fact that many people who didn’t know about Guam are now curious about it.

Ms. Nedlic said the tourism industry — which, along with the military bases, is a large component of the island’s economy — did not feel the effects of the threats. They were expecting to welcome 1.5 million visitors in 2017, a bit more than the 1.4 million they recorded in 2016.

While Japan has long been one of the largest markets for Guam tourism, she said that in October the number of Korean visitors surpassed Japanese tourists.

Other major markets include the US mainland, China, Hawaii, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

The Filipino contingent is also increasing, said Ms. Nedlic as the island welcomed 20,000 Filipinos from October 2016 to September 2017, a marked increase from the “10,000 to 12,000” average number of Filipino visitors they had yearly in the past.

This, she said, is largely due to the entry of more airlines as Guam is currently serviced by Philippine Airlines, United Airlines, and, most recently, Cebu Pacific which introduced its Guam-Manila route in March 2016. It currently flies there three times a week.

Locals might not be alarmed by the North Korean threats but it was clear that the Guamanian government was taking the aggressive rhetoric seriously judging by the strict security measures employed within the airport.

Before leaving for Guam, the group had to go through two extra security checkpoints before boarding the plane which included an interview before checking in and a more hands-on pat-down check at the gate.

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