BY IVA MAURIN
Saipan Correspondent

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres leads the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers, as they listen to Tourism and hospitality consultant Darlena Zhai present the plan to sustainably develop the CNMI into a multi-island integrated destination. Photo by Iva Maurin

SAN ROQUE, Saipan — Expect the NMI to aim to be the center of tourism in the Pacific as it postures to develop itself as a multi-island integrated destination — with Saipan as the improved hub of the Northern Mariana Islands; Tinian as the festival island; Rota, the nature capital; and the Northern Islands the destination for the ultimate travel adventure.

This plan was laid out by tourism and hospitality consultant, Darlena Zhai, and hosted by the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers at the Kensington Hotel on July 21.

Zhai — also the main author of the Sustainable Tourism Development Study prepared for the Marianas Visitors Authority in 2017 — talked about opportunities in taking the NMI to a “whole new level” as a multi-island destination, with pristine natural beauty that caters to unique and upmarket experiences.

“Saipan is the hub of the Marianas* and is home to the largest amount of existing [hotel] inventory as well as tourism activities and attractions, and therefore, in order to succeed as a multi-island destination, it is imperative that Saipan’s existing facilities undergo extensive revitalization,” Zhai said.

Saipan has an existing inventory of 2,534 rooms among the nine shoreline hotels and two inline hotels of the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, with an additional 1,200 rooms from smaller inland properties, she said. There also are 1,062 rooms pending from properties that were developed but are unfinished, or are currently not operational, together almost 5,000 rooms.

From 2013 to 2019 Saipan saw a boom in tourism, with occupancy levels in the mid to high 80%, reaching 91% in 2017. Room rate also grew from $100 in 2012 to $150 in 2017.

“During such a period of blooming demand, where the market was operating at near-capacity levels, there could have been opportunities to grow room rate even further, but two of the hindering factors are the market’s older facilities and limited global brand representation,” Zhai said.

She compared Saipan’s average daily rate performance [average revenue earned for an occupied room on a given rate] in 2019 to 15 other destinations, including Guam and Hawaii. Compared to Saipan’s $148, Guam reached a $213 rate and Hawaii averaged around $250 – Kauai, $283; Hawaii Island, $267; and Oahu, $241.

Those two destinations have a majority of shoreline properties as international brands, and though most were developed in the 70s and 80s, as in Saipan, they have undergone renovations through the years to remain competitive and to maximize revenue-generating capabilities, Zhai said.

“Without significant upgrade, it’s going to be highly challenging for Saipan to remain competitive, particularly to FIT [free independent travelers], more higher yielding segments [of tourists].”

Zhai said to transform Saipan into a high-quality resort destination, existing facilities should be upgraded and branded, particularly shoreline resorts. Unfinished or disused properties should be redeveloped or cleaned up; and any new development should be high quality. Saipan has a suitable inventory of properties and upcoming lease renewals offer opportunities to attract international brands, she said, adding job opportunities also.

In addition, she said, “Saipan is home to the majority of the residents in the Marianas, and it is important to have a few key signature attractions that could become key revenue generators in terms of attractions, while keeping some areas to be more resident-centric.”

Zhai recommended actively managing more sites, in addition to Managaha and central Garapan, so tourists have more to explore, and additional revenue could be put towards management and preservation efforts.

For the other islands, and for the multi-island integrated destination concept to get realized, accessibility needs to be improved for Saipan-based tourists to explore the rest of the NMI, she said, with Tinian ideal for a day trip and Rota a more upmarket destination for “return to nature” experiences. The Northern Islands can be showcased through “live aboard” experiences, where guests are hosted on large yachts, typically with about eight to ten cabins, which is more popular with smaller, luxury groups, Zhai said.

To facilitate such plans, proposed access requirements would include daytime scheduled flights to and from Saipan from key cities in Asia; daily scheduled flights between Guam, Saipan, and Rota; scheduled ferry service between Saipan and Tinian; propeller air taxi flights on demand from Saipan to Tinian and Rota; and yacht/vessels on demand in Saipan, Tinian, Rota, and the Northern Islands.

Zhai emphasized the importance for the NMI of preserving its natural environment, as it is the “entire basis for tourism in the Marianas,” and the NMI should therefore aim for higher-spending visitors, rather than just focusing on high volumes.

*The Northern Mariana Islands market themselves as “the Marianas.” mbj