BY IVA MAURIN
CAPITOL HILL, Saipan — The Northern Mariana Islands are gearing up for “the future of travel” as the whole island celebrates tourism as the primary economic driver in the Marianas.
So far, this fiscal year approximately 18,000 tourists have already enjoyed the NMI’s shores, compared to only about 5,000 total visitors who came to the NMI in 2021.
The Marianas Visitors Authority announced the figures on April 28 at the Governors Office on Capitol Hill in Saipan – during the proclamation signing to declare May as Tourism Month — to highlight the efforts of the entire island to drive tourism back and running
The most recent data from MVA showed that arrivals to the islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota saw a 1,603% growth in March, with 4,155 visitors compared to only 244 tourists in March 2021. In February, the NMI saw its highest monthly arrival since COVID began, with 4,188 visitors, which represented a 2,104% growth, compared to the same month last year, with only 190 visitors.
While these recent figures still represent an overall decrease of about 89% compared to the visitor data in 2019, which was 35,295 visitors in March, and 38,049 in February, they also represent glimpses of recovery for the NMI’s tourism economy.
“The future of travel compels us to constantly engage how best to continue our tourism revival, and in the new normal of travel post-COVID-19,” Priscilla M. Iakopo, managing director of MVA, said.
“How do we compel more visitors to choose to travel to the [Northern] Marianas in the future while still keeping our community and our visitors safe? This work remains the priority of the MVA through the CNMI Tourism Resumption Investment Plan program, focusing on our primary markets such as Korea and Japan, while at the same time, trying to attract new markets,” she said.
In June 2021, the CNMI administration forged a travel bubble agreement with the South Korean government which allowed groups of vaccinated travelers to come to the islands. Then in July 2021 MVA launched the TRIP program where the government provided subsidies to airlines, hotels, travel agencies, related businesses, and even to tourists, to jumpstart the industry.
The incentives provided have since been adjusted by MVA, with a slow but gradual increase in the visitors coming through the TRIP program. In March, the majority of visitors came from South Korea, the NMI’s ‘largest source market’ even pre-pandemic. Five airlines operate 12 flights weekly to Saipan, from Seoul and Busan.
“Getting tourism going has not been easy,” said Ivan Quichocho, vice president of Tan Holdings and MVA board member. “When the pandemic hit, everything came to a standstill, and trying to restart, put the powers on it, give that jolt to our industry, took really working hand in hand with the Task Force, with [the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.], with everybody in the government, to cross every t and dot every i.
“Now, competing destinations are starting to open up, and so we are in a phase of transitioning away from COVID restrictions where some countries still have them and others don’t, as well as trying to rebuild out of a global slowdown.”
Quichocho emphasized that other factors — including currency exchange issues — are also being taken into consideration, stressing that it takes investment — not only for the government, but even for small tourism-related businesses – to get the industry restarted. He said MVA members are going to try and go out to Japan “just as hard” as they went after Korea to bring tourists in, and that they look forward to further support and assistance.
MVA currently is working with major travel industry partners in Japan to get direct flights to the NMI this summer.
“Every little bit of support that is offered by the government, the community stakeholders, is a step forward to getting us back into a thriving tourism economy. It’s going to be a long road, make no mistake about it but we’re heading in the right direction,” Quichocho said.
Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres spotlighted on the private sector, especially the companies and organizations that committed to adopt areas throughout the NMI — beaches, lookouts, dive sites, parks, trails — under the public-private partnership program of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers.
“We have about 77 public-private partnerships who signed up for five years to go around the CNMI, to over 82 tourist sites, who committed to clean up our tourist sites to make the CNMI a world-class destination. Yes, it is far-fetched. It is not going to be next year. It is going to be several years from now, but we are building a strong foundation to make CNMI a real tourist destination,” Torres said.
Gloria C. Cavanagh, vice president at E-Land Group and chairperson of MVA, said tourism includes everybody.
“We have to remember that the future of travel includes us,” she said. “We are the reason why people from Japan, people from Korea, people from China, even people from Guam, especially nowadays, come to Saipan. It is our culture and it is our hospitality that brings people, and brings them back, which is very important. We want them to come back and see that we are even better than we were before.”
Iakopo said the future of travel requires that the NMI keeps up with the rapid changes in technology in the industry and with the high expectations of visitors for state-of-the-art services and facilities and be aware of traveler trends.
“Today’s traveler wants to have immersive and authentic cultural experiences. The MVA is encouraging that through our Hafa Adai Tirow spirit pledge and other programs. Today’s traveler also wants social connectivity, a feeling that they are part of our community. This is something that Marianas excels at,” she said.
MVA is leaning towards a more modern and sustainable tourism industry that highlights inter-island travel, where tourists can experience the beauty of the Northern Marianas culture, and where the heritage of the Chamorro and Carolinian people is honored.
“The [Northern] Marianas is our product. We wake up each day with a warm tropical climate, white sandy beaches, rich in culture, and a clean environment. I ask everyone to take pride in our island treasures and by doing so, please do your part to protect and preserve our natural treasures,” Iakopo said.
In March, aside from tourists from Korea, the NMI also welcomed 681 visitors from Guam, 515 visitors from U.S. and a combined 127 additional visitors from all other destinations.
To find out more about the NMI’s Tourism Month of May, or participate visit www.mymarianas.com, www.facebook.com/VisitTheMarianas or contact MVA community projects specialist Jack Aranda at  664-3200/1 or email [email protected] mbj