‘We are fighters and that’s the great thing about the community. Everybody still comes together, just like any disaster and now a pandemic. I think that’s one of the great things here—we follow the guidelines and we take it seriously.’ — Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Velma Palacios
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to rage across much of the globe, the CNMI business community is slowly picking up the pieces and trying to fashion semi-normal operations in the face of new challenges. The ones that didn’t close are holding up and the ones that temporarily closed are opening one by one—not only to generate income for the CNMI but also to provide food on the table for families of workers and employees.
For a place that has seen its share of devastating typhoons and economic upheavals, the CNMI still finds itself in uncharted territory. “The difference between super typhoons and this pandemic is, with the former, we already know what is going to happen. Since we experienced it a couple of times in our lifetime, there is some kind of certainty. But with the pandemic, you have different developments every day and, when there is uncertainty, people tend to become fearful,” said Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Velma Palacios.
With businesses getting back to their feet and trying to retrofit the business for health and safety reasons, the focus this time, Palacios said, is the safety of both employees and customers.
With the CNMI’s Community Vulnerability Level now at “Blue” (one step away from the safest level of “Green), Palacios said that most businesses are still trying to return to their routine and working on their loans, whether it is the Paycheck Protection Program or Economic Injury Disaster Loan.
“I am looking forward to reach ‘Level Green,’ where businesses can be operational just like pre-COVID-19. …In order to achieve that, I personally think that strengthening the domestic business scene should be a priority…,” she said. “I know there are some businesses that are contemplating whether to open or not and wait for the tourists to come. …There are still a lot of things to be done and for us to welcome back tourists smoothly and safely, we have to work with the governments where we get our tourists from.”
Tourism is the lifeblood of the CNMI and, with no flights and tourists coming in, the government is looking for other ways to sell the Marianas as a tourist destination. With many people itchy to travel after quarantine, many tourist destinations will compete for this market.
At a Marianas Visitors Authority board meeting recently that Gov. Ralph DLG Torres joined briefly, he raised the idea of rebranding the CNMI to attract high-end tourists. “How do we rebrand the Marianas? Where do we go from here? Our vision moving forward [is to] push eco- tourism,” he said.
Toward this end, the CNMI has contracted the help of YouTube influencer Robert Arrington, whose channel has 2.31 million fans, to promote Saipan, Tinian, Rota, and the Northern Islands. “He will spend a few months here, promote the Marianas and go to every tourist site to make sure the world will know what we have here. …This is the best opportunity for us to attract high-end tourists to appreciate what we have here,” Torres said.
MVA director Jerry Tan also pushed the idea of destination enhancement, with most of Saipan’s tourists being repeaters. “Now is the best time to take care of our tourist sites while there are no tourists around—clean sites and fix broken restrooms and rails on those sites. …We should…try fix as much as we can so when the tourists finally come back, for first-timers that would be a great but for a repeater, the enhancements would be a pleasant surprise,” he said.
“Again, in going after the high-end market, we have to emphasize quality over quantity. …The opportunity to promote the Northern Islands will attract tourists who are willing to pay lots of money to go there for an adventure. …Palau’s monthly arrivals statistics have Europeans and we hope to get that market too. …Rebranding will be helpful to the three islands and the Northern Islands,” he added.
MVA board director Chris Nelson also raised the suggestion of building outdoor showers at popular beach sites. “That will be a quick win for us and…we are not talking of a lot of money to do that. … I think beach showers would be good for locals and tourists, where fresh water is available so parents can clean up their kids and tourists can also clean up before they get into their cars,” he said.
Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands chair Gloria Cavanagh said the CNMI should make itself ready as far as making it “the” destination to go, “…provided protocols are set” by the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. and the COVID-19 Task Force, which are being worked on by all partners.
“A big challenge, of course, is the mandatory quarantine for both the CNMI as well as the source market,” she added.
To date, only three hotels are operational on the islands in terms of accommodations: Pacific Island Club Saipan in San Antonio and Kanoa Resort in Susupe are being used as quarantine sites while Hyatt Regency Saipan in Garapan is accepting room reservations only for Federal Emergency Management Agency officers and personnel and several contractors.
Restaurants are slowly opening for take-out and dine-in services but on limited hours like Hyatt, Fiesta Resort & Spa Saipan, Aqua Resort Saipan, and the soon-to-open Ohas Café at Kensington Hotel Saipan.
Palacios is optimistic, describing the CNMI business community as fighters. “We are fighters and that’s the great thing about the community. Everybody still comes together, just like any disaster and now a pandemic. I think that’s one of the great things here—we follow the guidelines and we take it seriously,” she added.