GUAMI've been getting strange looks from my colleagues ever since I confessed that I settled on a vacation destination because of a K-Mart. I'd wanted to see something a bit different from the Southeast Asian areas where I've vacationed many times, and Guam won out over Saipan because of the presence of the faltering U.S. chain. Where else, I reasoned, could I find nearby a cheese slicer, indoor/outdoor thermometer, oven and meat thermometers and underwear that fits?
Now that Korean Airlines has resumed flights to Guam, tour packages from Korea to the U.S. island territory have been dropping in price as Korean and Asiana fight for customers. But although the packages are attractively priced, and those interested in brand-name duty-free shopping will be happy, the island is not otherwise a low-cost area.
Guam lies about 3,200 kilometers southeast of Seoul; the 549-square-kilometer island is shaped roughly like a sock with its heel pointing to the west. Its 155,000 inhabitants are a melting pot of ethnic groups: 31 percent Chamorro, a Melanesian group whose ancestors watched Ferdinand Magellan arrive in the 16th century; 22 percent Filipino and about 5.5 percent Caucasian. Ethnic Koreans, some 3,800, are just over 2 percent of the population.
Getting to Guam from Seoul is easy ?well, relatively easy. Both Korean Air and Asiana have four-hour flights that leave in the evening and arrive at Guam in the wee hours of the morning. The return flights arrive here at dawn.
According to an Asiana Airlines marketing officer, the timing of the flights allows otherwise idle aircraft to be used, and it also permits ppali-ppali, rush-rush Koreans to pack the maximum sightseeing into a short trip. Indeed, we stumbled off the plane at 2 a.m. facing a 10 a.m. tour departure.
My Lotte Tour deal, which cost about 500,000 won ($350), was advertised as a five-day, four-night package including air travel, accommodations at the Guam Hilton hotel and one day of sightseeing. But the odd hours mean that the package is really only three days and two full nights in the hotel. On the day of arrival and the day of departure, the hotel can sell the room twice, which perhaps explains the attractive package price.
SHOP 'TIL YOU DROP
Guam, like Singapore and Hong Kong, is a duty-free area, but with its smaller population, the range of shopping is narrower than on Orchard Road or in Ocean Terminal. Electronic products, for example, are scarce in Guam. But retailers there know what the dominant force in Guam tourism, the Japanese, wants to buy. Some tourists seem to think that Guam's governor is Christian Dior.
The DFS Galleria, located on "hotel row" near Tumon Bay, can send a name-brand junkie into cardiac arrest. The ubiquitous Mr. Dior is joined there by Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein and the rest of the rogues gallery of purveyors of products that cost $4.95 before the designer label is slapped on and 100 times that price after. But many women, especially Japanese women, obviously don't agree with me. Even a fellow tourist in our group who seemed to be able to spot a Gucci logo from 100 meters seemed a bit surprised by the number of Japanese women carrying Louis Vuitton bags. Prada ran a close second, but the rest of the big names were also-rans, she decided.
But others are trying hard. The Galleria is crammed with boutiques featuring famous names and wannabes; Maui Jim may not be world-famous, but there were his sunglasses with price tags over $200, just like the big guys.
Two other shopping centers anchor the ends of the tourist district. At the north end is Micronesia Mall, a U.S. suburban-style mall featuring a two-story Macy's department store. At the south end of the zone is Guam Premium Outlets, a 30-shop mall selling clothing, luggage, jewelry and macadamia nuts.
And then there's the K-Mart, billed as the largest in the world. Don't laugh. After months of driving in Seoul without a clue where I was, I started looking for a good car compass. The few I found always pointed north no matter what direction I was heading. K-Mart stocked them, but it and Macy's failed me when it came to a hinged omelet pan and a double boiler. Maybe next time.
One disadvantage of Guam's location is that it is at the end of a long supply chain for U.S. products. At the K-Mart, the health and beauty product shelves were badly depleted, but if you wanted to buy plastic garden chairs for a few thousand of your closest friends, there they were, stacked in ranks across the front of the store.
SUN AND SAND
Guam's beaches do not outshine those of other Asian tropical destinations, but they have the advantage of not being overrun by itinerant peddlers of "genuine" Rolex watches. Ypao Beach Park, located next to the Hilton hotel on Tumon Bay, has a wide beach area and was not crowded even over the weekend. The waterfront at the Hilton hotel, just to the south of the park, is not a sand beach, but a coral sea bottom down a flight of stairs from the hotel grounds. The shallow waters there are home to a dazzling array of tropical fish. Bring along a snorkel, mask and footwear to protect against sharp coral.
Hotel rooms along the Guam waterfront are very pricy. Two favorites of Koreans are the Hilton and the Pacific International Club, both of which are available in package tours sold in Seoul. The Pacific International packages are considerably more expensive than the Hilton's, but several Koreans staying there said they liked the all-inclusive facilities, which compensated for what they said were lackluster guest rooms.
The Hilton is not the freshest rose in the garden either. My room, quoted at $200 per night plus 11 percent tax when I asked about extending my stay, was somewhat shabby around the edges. Someone also triggered the fire alarm at 4 a.m. on the first night I was there, but a half-hour later, there was still no sign of the fire department. That, I would suggest, is not the way to calm post-Sept. 11 jitters.
There are some cheaper Guam rooms - some as low as $65 per night with breakfast - advertised on the Internet, but the bargain rooms are some distance away from the beach.
TOURISTS AND TENSIONS
The "all-day tour" started only at 1 p.m., and it reminded me of why I usually shun package tours. Our Korean guide led us to three shops and to a site on the grounds of the Guam governor's office where a Korean television commercial had been filmed some years ago. "Gee, do I love culture," I thought to myself as my companions posed and clicked away. There was also a stop at Two Lovers Point, a promontory with a romantic legend and what is said to be a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, the only way to see the view is to pay $3 to climb up to an elevated viewing platform. At ground level, the shrubs and flowers have cunningly been allowed to grow and block the view. The site appears to be a favorite for Japanese couples to tie the knot; there is even a series of stone markers with brass plaques commemorating the start of lifetimes of Japanese marital bliss.
But grumbles about the tour were stilled when we set off on a 90-minute boat trip as part of the tour. The promised dolphins showed up on schedule, the water was a beautiful cobalt blue and one woman in our group looked dubiously at a small fish she had reeled in. The fish looked back at her accusingly.
Some of the guide's commentary seemed to suggest a bit of ethnic tension on the island. He told us, for example, that in order to keep the native Chamorro population happy and protect the United States' access to Guam's military facilities, the government paid a subsidy of $300 per month to every Chamorro child. The result, the guide assured us, was a baby boom among Chamorro high-school coeds. A check later with a local journalist confirmed that the ethnic subsidy story was nonsense, but there is probably a growing group of Korean visitors who believe it. My journalist source rued the collapse of an initiative to require tour guides to get some training at a local junior college.
The bulk of Guam's public transportation system is devoted to transporting tourists to shopping malls. A one-week, $8 pass is a bargain; a one-way bus trip is $2. Taxis are very expensive, and a car rental may be the best bet. Rentals start at $20 per day for an older car; any driver's license is acceptable. Gasoline, at $1.70 per gallon, is cheap compared to Seoul.
The bulk of the food supply on Guam is imported, so many ingredients are not especially fresh. Seafood should be an exception, but many menus leaned toward Alaskan king crab legs and other imported fare rather than local seafood. Meal prices at restaurants in the hotel district are generally comparable to prices at Seoul hotel restaurants - not inexpensive, in other words. The Dynasty restaurant at the Hilton serves good Beijing cuisine, and the Seahorse restaurant near the Marriott hotel on Tumon Bay stood out for its seafood and "surf and turf" combinations. According to the waiter, however, the restaurant has lost its lease and will close in about six weeks. Sam Choy's, across the street from the DFS Galleria, is a fun restaurant with a Hawaii-South Pacific theme. Another gem was the Maine lobster special at the T.G.I. Friday's, also near the DFS Galleria. The $38.50 meal featured a crustacean that seemed bigger than the advertised 1.5 pounds.
Guam also has the standard range of fast food outlets, and the main shopping malls have food courts.
I confess to not having done very much sightseeing or exploring of exotic locales other than K-Mart. Some of the island's Spanish heritage is still there to be seen. I did not find a Chamorro restaurant in the hotel district, but the journalist I talked with recommended a trip to the Wednesday night market at the Chamorro Village in Hagatna, the territory's capital. There, she said, you can sample Chamorro food from stalls and street vendors and get a glimpse at the traditions and lifestyles of Guam's natives.
THE KOREAN CONNECTION
A call to the Korean Consulate General to get some information about Koreans in Guam resulted in a lunch meeting with Consul General Rhee Woo-chung. He told me then that he is the father of Rhee Hyun-ju, who recently completed a six-month internship at the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.
Mr. Rhee has been in Guam for about a year, and said that the combination of well-behaved Korean tourists and gooed access to Guam officials makes his job easy. His jurisdiction includes Saipan and the Northern Marianas, where a large number of Korean clothing manufacturers operate plants that employ mainly ethnic Koreans from China. (That rather complicated system is designed to take advantage of the U.S. system of textile import quotas). He has economic issues to deal with in the Marianas, but his duties in Guam are primarily to ensure the safety of Koreans who live or visit there.
Mr. Rhee noted that Korean tourism in Guam is beginning to take on more importance for the local economy. Japanese tourism has dropped by 40 percent after the Sept. 11th terror attacks, he said, to an annual rate of about a million visitors per year, and is still falling. Koreans number 10,000 tourists per month and rising.
"Come on over," he recommended. "Your safety is guaranteed. Guam is one of the closest tropical destinations to Korea and the package tours are reasonably priced."
He agreed that renting a car is an excellent way to see Guam. "You can tour the whole island in about five hours," he said.
The number of Korean residents on Guam is declining, Mr. Rhee said, as the economy turns sour. But economic ties between Guam and Korea go back to the early days of Korean industrialization in the 1960s. Korean firms such as JoongAng Industry (no connection with the newspaper) and Hyundai Construction landed their first overseas jobs building U.S. military facilities there. With their reputations established, Korean firms won additional contracts for roads and housing before expanding to the Middle East. Mr. Rhee said there is a group of Korean-Americans still living on Guam that date their residence back to those early construction projects and to Guam's boom years of the 1970s and 1980s. For the most part, he said, their sons and daughters have moved to the U.S. mainland, so they visit them there occasionally. Some Koreans still do business in Guam, he said with a smile, but their main business is playing golf.
Mr. Rhee noted that the University of Guam has good marine biology and education programs. He suggested that Korean students who want to study abroad consider that school for its location near Korea, good education and inexpensive tuition.
Park Mun Su, another guest at the lunch, cautioned that there is at least one other local educational facility offering diplomas and degrees. He described it as a "ghost-like" school, and said it is not fully accredited. Mr. Park, an attorney, suggested that Koreans check carefully into the legitimacy of Guam-based schools advertising for students from Korea.
Prior to Mr. Rhee's appointment to the Korean Consulate in Guam, he worked at Korean diplomatic missions in Bangladesh and Iran, among other assignments. So it is perhaps only simple justice that he is enjoying Guam's clean air and tropical sunshine in his present job. "Every day's a holiday," he said with a big grin, "but don't tell my ministry."
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