For Daisy Zeng, a media and marketing manager at the Beijing-based Ctrip Vacations, a few hours travel from China’s capital this time of the year, which she said could be “very cold,” to a tropical weather destination such as Saipan, is a welcome respite that would resonate well with tourists from Beijing.
“It was very cold in Beijing when we left, at negative 4 degrees. Saipan is 28 degrees. Tourists from Beijing will like the weather here,” Zeng told Saipan Tribune, moments after China Eastern Airlines’ maiden charter flight from Beijing touched down at the Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport early Friday morning.
Ji Kaoshang, captain of the inaugural China Eastern flight from Beijing, said they touched down at 1:10am Friday. This was much earlier than the expected 1:50am arrival.
The A330 aircraft brought with it 295 passengers, including 22 media and tourism travel partners, including Zeng.
Zeng said a U.S. visa waiver and direct Beijing-Saipan flight of five hours is a come-on for Beijing tourists, on top of a good destination product—tropical island weather, beautiful beaches, an array of diving spots and marine sports.
“This is a good destination for vacation, for honeymoon, because of the weather, the beaches, visa waiver, direct flight, only five hours. Price is also not expensive,” Zeng said in an interview as they waited for the rest of the media and travel partners group to clear immigration at the airport.
Shell leis and “Hafa Adai” greeted the passengers as they exited the immigration area, courtesy of a welcoming group from the Marianas Visitors Authority led by marketing manager Bruce Bateman and marketing assistant Agatha Ketebengang, along with Century Tours vice president for destination management Alexander R.J. Stutely.
As passengers entered the baggage claim and customs area, they were treated to the sounds and sights of a traditional Marianas dance.
Stutely said Century Tours is glad to have the first China Eastern flight from Beijing to finally arrive. Century Tours, a travel and tour service company with headquarters in Shanghai and is a subsidiary of Luen Thai Enterprises, chartered the plane from China Eastern Airlines.
“It’s really a fantastic feeling for us because we’ve been working very hard for the past few months to try to make this happen so it’s really good to see them actually arriving here on Saipan,” Stutely said as the last passengers were making their way to the customs area.
He said the “first few flights are already fully booked.”
With 295 passengers arriving from Beijing every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Saipan will have almost 900 additional tourists every week.
“We invited about 22 media from China because we wanted to really give some exposure in China, what the CNMI really has to offer, so they can see the different products, see the quality of the beaches, the hotels, and hopefully spread the word back in China, how fantastic the CNMI really is,” Stutely added.
Hosting the media and travel partners in their familiarization tour are Century Tours and private tourism businesses on Saipan, including hotels.
Stutely said tapping the Beijing market is a big leap for the CNMI’s tourism industry.
“Beiing is the capital of China. Up until now, we’ve mainly been focusing on the Shanghai market. We’ve had flights from Beijing before but this is really the first time ever we have regular three-time weekly flights coming from Beijing,” he said.
Prior to China Eastern’s flight, Sichuan Airlines has been the only one providing regular charter service from China through its four-times-a-week schedule from Shanghai and twice weekly flight from Guangzhou. Century Tours also charters these flights.
The one-year plan to bring in direct flights from Bejing could stretch to several years.
“Our plan is to really keep it going,” Stutely added.
MVA has underscored the importance of new flights from China, which makes up 14 percent of the CNMI’s total tourist arrivals. MVA said the China market brings more than $150 million in total contributions to the CNMI economy.
Countries around the world are competing to get a piece of the lucrative China tourist market, and the CNMI has been positioning itself closer than ever. By 2020, Chinese tourist numbers are expected to triple those of Japan’s. The CNMI’s main tourism market has been Japan and Korea.
The World Tourism Organization, for example, forecasts 100 million outbound Chinese travelers by 2020, and they will prefer pre-packaged, well-organized, hassle-free travel.
China is now the world’s third-largest tourist destination and a major source of tourists, sending over 70 million travelers abroad in 2011.