As the Northern Mariana Islands continues to deal with sagging tourist numbers Pacific Islands Club Saipan is one hotel looking outside the box — and over towards the northeast.

Kieran Daly general manager of PIC told the Journal there is great potential in the Russian visitor market.

“It’s surprising how much of our marketing is word-of-mouth between the Russian guests. It’s now starting to flow into another big market that we haven’t really tapped into yet — we’re starting to see some business our way in the market out of Siberia. That is also a large volume of people and is still very close to Seoul. Guests can be skiing on a snow field and be here in four and-a-half hours and be lying on a beach drinking a cocktail.” Daly said the time difference is only an hour. “There’s no real difference for them other than the weather.”

Unlike Korean or Japanese tourists that stays an average of three to four days Russians stay for about 20 days. “They average 40 days annual leave. So they’ve got some time up their sleeves to come and holiday.”

Daly said all of the PIC materials now have Russian translations. “We need to nurture this market and build the facilities to allow them to feel they are coming to a place similar to home.”

He said Russians spend more and not just because they stay longer than other guests. “They actually spend more than a Japanese or Korean guest on a daily basis let alone on a stay. We don’t have anyone really doing averages but I can say that they are spending 10 to 15% more.”

Daly said more must be done to keep the Russian guest entertained. “When they come for 20 days we don’t have the infrastructure to keep them entertained for that long and they take every optional tour and they visit every site. They visit Tinian and go to the islands and have a look around and they go out on the yacht and dive. At the same time they like to spend time within the resort — I guess we’ve got to get some Russian TV for them. Imagine staying somewhere for 20 days and you turn the TV on and you can’t understand a word anyone is saying and you don’t even know what’s going on back in your own country.”

Daly said the Japanese tourist does not have the same type of buying power as the Russian. “We have a younger Japanese market coming into the CNMI that doesn’t have that type of cash. When we compare our rooms and our Boutiki retail store the Russians spend 15 to 20% per day.”

According to Daly the Russians are a more mature market. “They’re usually a market with kids with the family. They’re usually reasonably wealthy and they expect and demand a high-end product and high-end service and they’re prepared to pay for it.” He said there must be a concentrated effort on promoting not just PIC but the NMI as well. “We’ve had one guest come and then the following year they came back with three rooms and the following year this year they booked six rooms. So one guest has generated six rooms times 18 room nights over our busy holiday season at a top-end rate. They are taking our suites and our oceanfront rooms. We didn’t spend 1% on marketing; it was all word of mouth and repeat guests which is very good. Imagine if we spent money and told people about Saipan.”

Daly said there are numerous untapped markets in Russia and points to a recent visit with Russian tour agents as proof. “When my Russian sales manager did her tour of all the travel agents she invited them to come and see Saipan and half of them told her that they weren’t interested in the Czechoslovakia market. They had no idea where Saipan was.”

Daly told the Journal that the immigration situation is not ideal. “The visa situation is not bad but it’s not great. It may not be like the China market where it’s controlled to the limit we could probably get them a visa within seven days. We can get them a visa and its not a costly situation it doesn’t cost them money. The ultimate situation would be to offer them a visa when they arrive because other Russian business that travels into Thailand Vietnam Korea and China gets the visa issued as they arrive at the airport and that makes it a lot easier for them to travel to those areas.”

Daly illustrated the potential by comparing the NMI to Thailand. “Thailand averages up to or around 400 000 arrivals per year. So you times 400 000 by 15 nights and it’s a huge potential. We’re closer than Thailand and we’re the closest U.S. destination.”

Daly has a vision for the island. “The island has the potential to be a boutique island. There are some infrastructure problems here and there is cosmetic work that needs to be done to the island but it could be very easily marketed as a boutique island in the near future. There has been no inventory of hotel room growth over seven to eight years. If people could bring their hotels up to standard the beaches up to standard the infrastructure and roads up to a better standard the island will take care of the rest.”

He said the hotels went into a price war about four years ago. “They never came out of it and because their product got tired they couldn’t come out of it. Now they are trying to improve their product but they are going to struggle to get their rate back up. The problem is that they go into these new markets and they think volume but they should go into it and think long term.”

Daly said a price war must be avoided in order for all hotels and resorts in the NMI to benefit from the Russian market. “They gave their rooms at a cheap rate and we became a cheap destination and the higher-end doesn’t want to go there. A person that is quite wealthy and a person that is middle class they don’t travel to the same destinations especially on an island. That’s unfortunately what’s happened with our China market.”

Daly said PIC is committed to promoting Saipan. “Last year PIC went over to the Russian trade shows and represented MVA at our expense. ” He said he hoped the MVA would place some money into a Russian campaign.

The Marianas Visitors Authority said three Russian groups have visited the NMI in the last two months. MBJ