Tourism officials expressed hope over the weekend that the arrival of Northwest Airlines’ B747 would signal the improvement of the CNMI’s market share in Japan.
“It may take a while to replace the seats left by Continental but we’re at least moving, ” said Marianas Visitors Authority Board Chairman Dave M. Sablan.
Claiming low traffic, Continental Micronesia has removed all its direct flights from various cities in Japan to Saipan which Japanese tour operators said would severely hinder efforts to bring in visitors to the island.
Northwest decided to upgrade its aircraft from DC 10 to B747 as a result of the 50 percent reduction in departure and arrival fees under the Airlines Incentive Program of the Commonwealth Ports Authority. This will result in an increase in seat capacity by 32 percent or an additional 630 seats per week for Saipan.
The incentive program, which took effect in May 1999, was carried out by CPA to entice carriers to increase traffic and revive the ailing tourism economy. During the last board meeting, the ports authority widened its incentive program by including airlines that will service new markets to the CNMI.
Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio led the CNMI government officials who welcomed the arrival of Northwest’s B747, which left Tokyo at 9:45 am and arrived Saipan at 3:15 pm carrying some 365 passengers.
“We will work closely with airlines that are willing to come here and bring in visitors,” said Tenorio.
In Guam last week, Continental Micronesia unveiled its new fleet of B737 envisioned to improve efficiency of service in Micronesia amid a huge reception last Tuesday. Continental flew in media entities in the Pacific and Asia to cover the event.
The governor was not invited to the occasion.
Creative Tours Micronesia regional director Kiyoshi Aikawa said tours operators would now rely on charter flights carried out by Japan Airlines. JAL will operate nine Nagoya-Saipan charter flights before the end of the year.
All Nippon Airways will carry out 10 Osaka-Saipan charter flights for the millennium package tour that is being marketed by a subsidiary of Japan Travel Bureau, the world’s biggest tour operator.
“The only problem with the charter flights is that we, the agents, are facing a big risk because those seats are already paid by us. If we are not able to sell them, then it is us who will lose money unlike the regular flights,” said Aikawa.
According to Toshiaki Nishihara, Northwest account manager for Eastern Japan, the short distance between Japan and Saipan is still the biggest factor why Japanese tourists come here. During the last three months, Northwest’s Tokyo-Saipan direct service has shown a 90 percent improvement in traffic.
Although Hawaii is still the number one preferred destination by Japanese, Nishihara said the seven-hour flight from Tokyo to Honolulu discourages Japanese to travel there with their children.
“The schedule is not very attractive to get Japanese families since the flight for Honolulu leaves in the evening unlike going to Saipan where you leave in the morning and arrive here in the afternoon,” he said.
This is the main reason why Saipan would still be popular to family group tours and office ladies, who are considered the biggest spender among Japanese travelers. As Japanese travelers search for the cheaper package tours, Nishihara believes that Saipan still offers a very competitive price in the Pacific.
Northwest Airlines, the world’s fourth largest airline, flies daily between Guam and Saipan to Tokyo, Japan with connecting flights to nine U.S. gateways and over 250 North American destinations.