‘CNMI is in a solid position to make a full recovery’

7,500 Korean visitors expected to arrive this month, the highest monthly arrival yet; MVA finalizing contract that will result in three weekly flights from Japan

Like the rest of the world, the CNMI’s tourism industry has a long way to go to full recovery, but it is in a solid position to make such a recovery, according to Marianas Visitors Authority managing director Priscilla M. Iakopo.

This month alone, the CNMI is expecting to receive over 7,500 visitors from its biggest source market, South Korea. “This will be our highest monthly arrival yet,” said Iakopo in her presentation during the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee’s hearing Wednesday last week on MVA’s budget for fiscal year 2023.

In fiscal year 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the CNMI received 425,000 visitors. In

fiscal year 2022, that number was at 215,000 visitors—half the number compared to FY 2019.

Iakopo said that most of those 215,000 came during the early months before COVID-19.

She noted that in fiscal year 2021, only about 5,000 visitors came to the Marianas.

Through April of this fiscal year, the CNMI has already quadrupled last year’s total arrivals, with over 23,000 arrivals.

MVA initiated the Tourism Resumption Investment Plan last July as a means to jumpstart CNMI’s economy.

As a result of TRIP, Iakopo said, there has been a gradual increase in both flights and visitor arrivals, from zero flight in June 2021 or before the TRIP started, to over 40 flights in the last month, with an increase projected into next month.

“Since the beginning of TRIP, we have carefully and strategically modified, reduced, and most especially eliminated the incentives we started with,” Iakopo said.

Those incentives included airline subsidies, hybrid quarantine, money for tourists to spend locally, travel agency incentives, and free PCR tests.

MVA expects to end this month the modified airline subsidies as the CNMI has gradually allowed organic market demand to take over.

Iakopo said that due to TRIP, there are now five airlines flying 12 flights a week to the CNMI from two cities in Korea. This includes two airlines—Air Busan and Air Seoul—that have never flown to the Marianas before.

“Factors that continue to influence arrivals from Korea are…the safety of our destination, entry requirements either here or returning to Korea, and testing and our quarantine support,” Iakopo said.

She said they just got a report from their offshore office in Korea that, as of that day (Wednesday last week), the Korean government will be lifting the quarantine requirements for unvaccinated people, primarily children.

Most importantly, one of the biggest returns that the Marianas received through TRIP is the unprecedented amount of media exposure and promotion of the CNMI destination, she said.

“Because of the travel bubble, the Marianas has received exposure in virtually every major news outlet in the country,” she said.

Since the CNMI was the first of only two travel destinations endorsed by the Korean Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, Iakopo said the Marianas was also prominently featured in every travel agency on their home pages and in their collaterals.

She said the dollar value of this coverage is virtually immeasurable and far beyond MVA’s annual budget even during pre-COVID.

With respect to Japan market, Iakopo said they have been assessing the market for about as long as Korea, but the Japanese public has not been traveling until recently.

“With the recent easing of many restrictions in international travel for Japanese residents, now is the time to invest,” she said.

Iakopo said MVA is in the process of finalizing a contract for airline incentives to commit direct flights from Japan within the next month. If all goes as planned, these incentives will support three weekly flights from Japan.

“At this time, I’m not in the liberty to share further specifics as the contract has not been finalized yet,” Iakopo said.

MVA is requesting an appropriation of $15.8 million for fiscal year 2023 to fund operations of eight divisions, with majority of the money going to marketing destination enhancement.

“This is comparable to our budget pre-COVID and with at least two of our three top source markets going back online, this will allow the MVA to continue its work toward full economic recovery,” Iakopo said.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a senior reporter of Saipan Tribune. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has covered all news beats in the CNMI. He is a recipient of the CNMI Supreme Court Justice Award. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@Saipantribune.com
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