BY MAUREEN N. MARATITA
SAN JOSE, Tinian — For tourist visitors interested in Tinian, you probably couldn’t find a better description than the one about the island on www.visitusa.com.
“The tiny island of Tinian is a place where visitors will find pristine and secluded beaches, World War II landmarks and world-class scuba diving,” the site says.
Tinian currently has one dive shop — Tinian Dive. It’s owner, Mr. Yoon, has been on Tinian since 2009. He is doing business, but supplements that income with fishing and construction work, he said.
Prior to the pandemic, Tinian was a regular stop on a variety of tours for military veterans, their children, history buffs, and tourists. Tinian hosted about 30,000 visitors a year at one time, according to the Tinian Chamber of Commerce site.
Shaun Christian, president of Star Marianas Air; said he is seeing the return of various tour groups to Tinian, with the airline carrying smaller groups already. Star Marianas will take “one of our largest groups” to Tinian in mid-March — a World War II tour group of 80 passengers who will visit for the day, he said. On average in 2022, the airline moved 4,336 passengers in a month between Saipan and Tinian.
William Giles, vice president of Marianas Southern Airways, said its Tinian flights are averaging about 275 passengers a month. “We would like to increase our frequency soon, as we hope to add additional aircraft,” he said.
Tourism in the Northern Mariana Islands may be slowly coming back, but for businesses and residents of Tinian, economic conditions in 2023 can be challenging.
Robert H. Jones, chairman and CEO of Triple J Enterprises Inc.; has personally overseen the investment of the Triple J group in Tinian in the last three years, initially investing about $2 million in the Tinian Western Lodge, the Bar-K Diner and the Hertz office at the airport, excluding the rental car fleet, according to Journal files.
The impetus for that investment was two-fold, he told the Journal.
In May 2019, the Northern Mariana Islands government and the U.S. Department of Defense signed a $21.9 million 40-year lease agreement for the construction of a divert airfield in Tinian.
And Leonard K. Kaae, senior vice president and general manager of Black Construction Corp.; told Jones he was interested in bidding on that construction and shared what his needs would be in terms of worker housing and meal services.
“We couldn’t have done any of this [investment] without the military’s commitment to this mission — along with Black’s commitment to carry it out,” Jones said.
Black Micro Corp., which does business in the NMI did bid, and won the contract in November 2021. (See “From the ground up,” on the Front Page.)
Jones said the local population alone would not have supported the amount of investment that Triple J has made, which includes a current workforce of 33 in Tinian, plus 10 Saipan construction staff currently assigned there. In addition, the team also includes two farmers, contracted by a manpower agency.
“Because we were here for the mission, we wanted to serve the local people as much as possible — improve their lifestyle by putting in the restaurant and the hotel,” Jones said.
The impact of the Tinian Western Lodge and the Bar-K diner locally is obvious. When the Journal visited in mid-February, the Bar-K was hosting residents, to include a birthday lunch celebration. Menu items range from takeout platters to breakfast and an all-day menu that includes appetizers, grilled entrees, and more. The hotel and the restaurant also drew military visitors — on island for the Air Force’s Cope North Exercise and happily filling the restaurant for dinner.
The Bar-K diner’s name pays homage to the late Kenneth T. Jones, founder of Jones & Guerrero Co. Inc. and the name of his Bar-K cattle ranch in Tinian some decades ago. He was also the brother of Robert Jones, who initially worked at Jones & Guerrero before he founded Triple J and would come to Tinian to the ranch on business.
The hotel offers nine rooms that continue the Western theme and were arranged with aesthetic appeal and comfort in mind — from an excellent shower to a thoughtful array of amenities. “All the furniture and woodwork was made locally,” said Pilar Laguana, wife of Robert. She also oversaw the nearby Tinian Garden Bed & Breakfast décor, which has six rooms with individual themes, as well as a lounge, kitchen, laundry and its own patio.
As word got around, the hotel has also seen Saipan residents taking advantage of the short hop to Tinian. “For Saipan people, it’s a place to get away for the weekend,” Jones said.
Tinian Wholesale To Everyone, a 4,000 square foot outlet, offers a wide variety of goods that residents might require, has its own walk-in freezer and also stocks jars the famous Tinian hot peppers, which staff will pack to go.
“We’ve got more compliments on the things we’ve done here in Tinian than I ever have in Guam, or Majuro or Ebeye or anywhere,” Jones said. People are appreciative of not having to go to Saipan to buy a refrigerator or a bed and ship that to Tinian, he said.
Tinian Western Lodge now offers the Tinian Conference Center.
“When I originally came here, I had containers of furniture in there, because everybody was buying furniture — people buying beds and refrigerators and washing machines,” Jones said.
When the demand for goods died down, the furniture store was converted into the conference center. “We have nine conferences booked for March,” Jones said. Most of the conferences are for a day at a time, though some are for two or three days, requiring accommodation also. Bookings include those from federal agencies and NMI agencies. “We have a great demand for community events like birthday parties, weddings,” Laguana said.
The conference center is also designed so that it can be used as a workforce dining area for 100 people.
Jones was also able to offer one of the Triple J barracks to house about 30 military personnel who were in Tinian for Cope North in February. The barracks was equipped with bunk beds, mattresses, wi-fi, showers and so on. “The last group [in 2022] stayed at the airport and slept on the beaches. … It was terrible,” he said.
As to worker housing, Jones said, “We can sleep 110 people now, plus the 15 rooms that we have for guests.”
Economic investments that have gone awry in Tinian include casinos.
Hong Kong Entertainment (Overseas) Investment Ltd., which did business as the Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino opened in 1998. While it was charged with federal currency violations in 2015, according to Journal files the Dynasty closed in 2015 due to damages by Typhoon Soudelor, and a lack of flights to bring in tourist packages, it said. The closure was intended to be temporary, but the business never reopened.
The Alter City Group planned a casino in 2016, but that did not move forward. Bridge Investment Group LLC had planned to open the doors to its new casino in September 2021, but the property is empty. According to journal files, Pacific Rim Land Development Inc. was awarded the design-build of the 40,803 square-meter hotel and casino, and the project started in February 2014, estimated at $16 million. It experienced delays in delivery of supplies around May 2020. Work continued throughout the pandemic with additional safety measures in place, but delays occurred in October of that year, due to what Pacific Rim said was permitting and the agreement with CPA.
The downside of doing business in Tinian is the cost of shipping.
“Mostly shipping from Saipan to Tinian is about the same as shipping from the United States to Saipan,” Jones said. “Then you have to ship it over here from Saipan; that’s another $2,700.” Even shipping by barge can be prohibitively expensive, he said.
Shipping is a challenge that “needs to be worked on by the government with some kind of subsidies,” Jones said.
With the increase in costs, it has become more of a challenge generally, he said and is going to be a project for the government and the Saipan Chamber of Commerce. “We’re going to be working on this in the future with the new governor, because he’s sensitive to it.”
Supply chain issues also dog businesses in Tinian. “We order 1,000 items and we get 700. We’re at the end of the food chain,” Jones said.
Laguana has overseen planting that supplies produce to the hotel. “This is what we did during COVID,” she said. “Food security is something everybody needs to be thinking about,” she said. “What we can’t grow and what we need, we buy from the locals.”
Jones said there is potential to grow a lot more on the island. “Tinian is full of black fertile soil. It’s right here in this valley.” One issue in developing agricultural land, he said is the cost of an environmental consultant related to the permit process. “If you clear land to farm, you shouldn’t have to get permits.”
As to the lack of progress towards a U.S. Department of Agriculture certified slaughterhouse at the existing facility — much touted in 2021 according to Journal files, Jones said, “It has the potential and it’s easy to fix.”
Tinian has about 1,700 head of cattle on-island, Jones said. According to Journal files, all cattle are 100% grass-fed, free-range, and raised without the use of antibiotics or food supplements.
Jones estimates that the military’s needs will last for at least 10 years. He said he believes Triple J’s investment will pay off, and a bright future is ahead for the island.
The development of Triple J’s properties has brought other improvements to Tinian — for example renovation of apartments. “We small businesses feed off each other,” Jones said. “People are enthusiastic that there’s something happening.” mbj