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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tourism on a cardboard sea

Ed Stephens Jr.

Many folks on Saipan can relate to this paradox: If you work in the tourism industry, you might seldom get a chance to be a tourist yourself. It’s not the biggest problem in the world, but it’s hard to keep a perspective from the customer’s viewpoint unless you’re in a customer’s shoes.

I’ve spent my favorite years in the tourism industry. My duties have included flying helicopter tours, working in management, and serving as a consultant in venues ranging from the bustle of Tokyo to the wilds of Borneo.

As I’m soaking up fun as a tourist during a mainland vacation, it’s a good opportunity for me to refresh my tourism thinking from the customer’s viewpoint. After all, this time around, I am the customer. I also stumbled on a cool little mystery that I’ll serve at the end of this article as literary dessert.

One truth worth heeding is that it takes a lot of energy to serve tourists. It’s not an industry for slugs. In the upper-echelon tourism venues, I noticed a lot of very energetic young people (college age) tending stores, restaurants, and hotel counters. Many are seasonal workers who are attracted to skiing and outdoor sports, so the related perquisites of their jobs can be just as important as their salaries are.

Some of these workers hail from afar, such as Europe. For example, one gal tending a souvenir store was an engineering student from Romania. She works for a few months at a resort in Wyoming, soaking up all the skiing she can get, then she goes back home to her studies. She speaks four languages.

I know that some resorts in Saipan have employed bright young collegiate types, and the advantages seem obvious, since they’re often gregarious and enthusiastic. By contrast, Saipan has also seen its share of sullen, gum-chewing clerks and restaurant servers, so we’re all over the scale on this one.

During my vacation I’ve noticed a very wide range of quality in hotels. Most of the mid-tier hotels are very pleasant and well-managed. But some are downright filthy and shabby, and I’m talking about major brands. It’s an inefficient market.

In theory, the flood tide of Internet feedback would knock the market into a more efficient stance, and I guess it has a little bit, but it isn’t a perfect solution. After all, I’m convinced that 90 percent of the world’s population would merrily sit in a rotting pool of hog vomit as long as they have a big screen TV and a free breakfast bar.

Incidentally, some of the best hotels I’ve encountered have been independent names. They also seem more aggressive about cutting prices to maintain occupancy in slow periods.

If there’s one thing where America is tops, it’s retailing, and tourism venues are no exception. From the discount outlets in the western deserts to the upper-tier enclaves of lush resorts, I’m amazed at how robust the retailing sector is. Stores are well-arranged, very inviting, and highly efficient.

Some customers are independent travelers such as my wife and I, and we just sort of lazily lollygag about. Meanwhile, on the other hand, entire busloads of package tourists from foreign lands are in play, too, and they’re typically very energetic shoppers who hit the stores with the determination of troops storming a beach.

Now, as promised, here’s a little mystery. It proves, among other things, that Saipan doesn’t have a monopoly on intrigues.

I was having coffee in a little cafe. Next to the cafe was a store that was apparently vacant and out of business. I stepped outside the cafe to take a cell phone call, whereupon I saw about 10 identically-dressed women arrive at the vacant store en masse.

The lights came on. The shelves were stocked. Signs announcing sales went up. No sooner did the last sign go up than three large tourism buses pulled up. Foreign tourists filed off of the buses and directly into the store, with their tour guides steering them around assertively.

About 30 minutes later the tourists filed back onto the buses, purchases in hand. The last bus wasn’t three feet out the parking lot before the wares came back off the shelves. The signs came down. The lights went out. The identically-dressed women left. All was dark and empty again.

Mysterious? Sure. Impressive? Yeah! My microeconomics professors would have applauded. Want to talk about optimizing resources? I can’t think of a better example. And it was an example hiding in plain sight. Were it not for my cell phone call, I would have been oblivious to the entire gig.

It reminds me of an old song, “It’s only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea.”

Well, yes. Yes, it is. And here I am, sailing along with it.

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to hit the breakfast bar for some waffles.

* * *

Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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