BY MARK RABAGO
ACHUGAO, Saipan — Managing director of airport operations for Asia Pacific at United Airlines, Samuel V. Shinohara, said that one of the goals of reintroducing the Narita/Tokyo-Saipan flights is to revive the Japanese tourism market in the Northern Mariana Islands.
“Certainly that’s our goal. To bring Japanese tourists back here,” he said during a press conference on July 1 at the Aqua Resort Club.
“I know that the [Marianas Visitors Authority] has a big delegation coming out to Japan in the next few days, so we look forward to the partnership and certainly I think this is great for the CNMI. It’s great for our business. We’re in the business of reenergizing the tourism industry,” he added.
However, Shinohara said. aside from bringing back the commonwealth’s original source market for its tourism industry, United Airlines is also looking at facilitating the local people’s needs by offering travel connections anywhere in the world.
“This provides a much quicker connection for those local travelers that want to connect to the United States and beyond, or across Asia to any of the destinations across Asia that are being offered out of Narita.”
The United Airlines official also thanked, first and foremost, Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres for reaching out to the carrier to revive the long-dormant Narita/Tokyo-Saipan flight service. He also gave credit to the Marianas Visitors Authority board of directors for including United Airlines in its Tourism Resumption Investment Plan, more commonly known as TRIP.
“Without them we certainly wouldn’t be here announcing the fact that we’re going to be flying three times a week between Saipan and Narita on the 737-800 with 166 seats and we hope to have them all full coming in. It’ll be a morning departure out of Saipan and early morning arrival into Japan and late evening departure out of Narita into Saipan, which we have found is a very successful travel pattern for us, and so we hope that people take the opportunity to look at the fare offerings that we have out there.”
For Torres, bringing back United Airlines’ Narita/Tokyo-Saipan flights may have been a long time coming but ultimately reconnects the NMI to its past through the special and historic relationship the NMI has with Japan.
Torres also recognized the local community’s thirst to go off-island after COVID-19 essentially restricted overseas travel for the past couple of years, thanking Shinohara and MVA. “It is important to realize the work MVA put into this,” he said.
Coming on the heels of the NMI’s successful hosting of the Northern Marianas Pacific Mini Games 2022 and on the eve of celebrating Liberation Day, Torres said the return of the United Airlines regular service is a portent of other good things to come for the CNMI.
Shinohara said the United team in Japan is already hard at work.
“We’ve already started selling flights. In fact, the team is coming on July 10 and 11 to spend some time here on the island to reacquaint themselves with Saipan and all of the beauties and wonders that you folks have to offer.”
He said people flying out of Saipan will still have their connections to Guam and onward.
“If somebody wanted a direct flight to Honolulu we can certainly give them that offering over to Guam.” The Narita flights are just increased offerings for the local people as well, he said. “So we’re really excited about that. I think this is just the beginning of what’s going to be a great partnership. It started on a really positive note, and I think the teams are very committed to working hard to make it very successful. And so we’re looking forward to the future.”
Earlier in the past week, MVA said it’s committing $15 million to the Japan Tourism Resumption Investment Plan and that will coincide with the United Airlines Japan-Saipan flights in September. The inaugural flight for TRIP Japan is set to arrive on Sept. 1 and will be the first of many flights expected to bring in more than 8,000 Japanese visitors to Saipan through the rest of the year.
TRIP Japan will essentially mirror the Korean version that gave subsidies to airlines, hotels, travel agencies, and related businesses to help jumpstart tourism.
One component of TRIP Korea that will not be included in TRIP Japan is Travel Bucks — where the CNMI government gave tourists $500 each to be spent locally.
MVA chairwoman Viola Alepuyo justified the Torres administration spending tens of millions of dollars in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act of 2021) funding to bankroll TRIP Korea and now TRIP Japan.
“You either give somebody fish or teach them how to fish, right? What we’re trying to do is — we’re trying to jumpstart our economy. If we gave that $15 million and divided it up amongst all our community members, they’ll get money once. But if we help our economy come back on track, then we can see our revenue grow,” she said.
Alepuyo said MVA is hoping that with the return in droves of Korean and Japanese tourists, the government would double the revenue in its coffers as well as bring in more needed jobs to community members.
“If all our people are going to do is to stay home and get handouts, where are we going to be here in a year when the [ARPA] money runs out? Is that what we want to do?” she asked.
TRIP chairman Ivan Quichocho and Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands president Gloria C. Cavanagh said the NMI’s tourism infrastructure is about ready to handle the influx of Japanese tourists on top of the Korean tourists that have already returned since last year.
Quichocho said DFS Galleria fortunately reopened after temporarily closing its doors. He also acknowledged ABC Stores, I Love Saipan, and iShop, among other retailers catering to tourists, which stayed open throughout the pandemic.
Cavanagh said in terms of available hotel rooms, Pacific Islands Club Saipan, Hyatt Regency Saipan, and Aqua Resort Club are open and Coral Ocean Resort and Grandvrio Resort can welcome tourists at the drop of a hat, with the latter even serving as the main athletes village during the Mini Games.
She said the Crowne Plaza Resort Saipan, the former Fiesta Resort, is expected to come online in the fall. Tan Holdings previously told the Journal the targeted date for the re-opening is Oct. 15.
She also said there will be an ample workforce to man the revival of the hotel industry.
Alexander A. Sablan, chairman of the Tourism Infrastructure Reboot Committee of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers, said inroads have been achieved in making the NMI more tourist-friendly following major facelifts of tourist sites. Some of the sites to have undergone transformation via the Torres administration’s “Public Private Partnership” program are Bird Island Lookout, the adjacent Calabera Cave, the Grotto, Banzai Cliff, and Suicide Cliff.
Torres appealed to the local community for its continued support as the NMI welcomes back the Japanese tourism market.
“Let’s make this inaugural flight even better than we did in the past, and we look forward to a stronger relationship and a better tomorrow for all of us. The tourist industry is the only economic driver here in the CNMI.” mbj