BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO, Japan — There is growing optimism within the Marianas Visitors Authority that the gradual easing of coronavirus restrictions by the Japanese government and the announcement by United Airlines of new flights to Saipan will soon jump-start the inbound tourism sector.
There is, however, a parallel recognition that much hard work remains to be done to build on these positive developments and encourage yet more Japanese to select Saipan as their holiday destination.
Executives from MVA met with tourism partners and the media in Tokyo on July 8 as part of a broader outreach campaign that also included stops in Osaka, Nagoya and South Korea.
The seminar, which was operated in conjunction with a webinar for stakeholders who could not be physically present, provided an update on Saipan’s COVID-19 protocols, MVA’s marketing plans and an update on the destinations and attractions, including new and recently renovated hotels.
Representatives of United Airlines were also on hand to detail the operator’s new services. From Sept. 1, United will fly three weekly flights from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport directly to Saipan, with flights departing on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Return flights from Saipan will take off Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
“We are very excited by the start of direct United flights on Sept. 1,” said Ellsbeth Viola Alepuyo, chairwoman of the MVA board. “We have welcomed our brothers and sisters from Japan for many decades and we are very happy that we will be able to forge that relationship once again.
“The people of the Marianas truly identify not just with the country of Japan, but with the people of Japan,” she told the Journal.
One initiative that MVA is pursuing will be increasing awareness and understanding of Saipan as a destination among travel agents in Japan, including through familiarization trips that will give them “first-hand knowledge” of the destination, Alepuyo said.
The agency is looking to make the most of social media and digital media to engage with travelers, but there will also be a big push to reach out to active senior citizens to encourage them to return, she said. This is the generation that visited Saipan in the early years of Japan’s economic boom and as foreign vacations slowly became available. Those people are now grandparents, she pointed out, and the aim is to return to a place that they have fond memories of with their extended families.
Recent investment in Saipan’s sporting infrastructure now means it is a potential for sports tourism and there are hopes that one of Japan’s professional baseball teams may select the island for its annual spring training camp, just as the Kintetsu Buffaloes team did in the past.
In addition, plans are being drawn up to provide incentives for large group tours and to encourage new sister-city relationships as well as student exchange programs, Alepuyo said. “We want to take a holistic approach and to cast our net as wide as possible in order to attract as many travelers as possible.”
A key element of the mission was to communicate to partners the positives of a vacation in Saipan, said Ivan Quichocho, chairman of MVA’s Tourism Resumption Investment Plan.
“The plan was the platform and foundations we used to create a ‘travel bubble’ for South Korea during the surge in the delta variant of the virus in Korea,” he said. “On the Saipan side, we have very few infections and a high vaccination rate. That has helped to create a notable brand of Saipan as a safe and reliable destination for tourists. That was launched for the South Korea ‘bubble,’ but now we are moving on to Japan and we have high hopes thanks to the start of these direct flight services,” Quichocho said.
The flight departure and arrival schedule are “optimal for three-day packages” and will deliver affordable getaways for Japanese travelers, he said.
There are, however, hurdles that still need to be overcome. Japan has relaxed but not entirely lifted its coronavirus requirements for anyone returning to the country – with a PCR test requirement and an entry quota of 20,000 per day. The recent decline in the strength of the yen to the dollar has suddenly made vacations more expensive.
“We understand there are significant challenges, but we are coming with up solutions,” Quichocho said.
“As destinations all vie for Japanese tourists once full reopening happens, we hope our efforts, our program will have been that little bit more that brings them to us over other destinations.”
In addition to interacting directly with Japan’s travel trade, MVA is looking into newspaper and television advertising, particularly in concert with United Airlines, to complement the social media campaigns.
“We will look at every relevant platform to get the message across, but in the end, nothing is more reliable than word-of-mouth recommendations from someone who has visited the destination and that is something that we want to do as well,” Quichocho said.
While United Airlines was the first carrier to step forward to launch new routes to Saipan, MVA remains optimistic that United’s success will encourage other airlines to follow suit.
“Eventually, our goal is to grow from three flights daily and from multiple cities in Japan,” Quichocho said. “We see these new flights as our future and we expect them to operate for no less than one year. But if we can fill those places, then it will be easy to build on that.
“It will take a lot of effort from the board and management of the MVA, but it’s something that we are very much committed to,” he said. mbj