CNMI welcomes first Narita- Saipan direct flight in years


United Airlines’ first direct flight from Narita, Japan to Saipan lands at the Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport at 1:37am last Friday morning carrying the first batch of Japanese tourists since the CNMI closed its borders back in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Inset, Sam Shinohara,  United Airlines managing director for airport operations for the Asia Pacific region, greets Japanese tourists. (KIMBERLY B. ESMORES)

Over the weekend, after over two years, the CNMI celebrated the return of its Japanese tourists as well as United Airlines’ very first Narita-Saipan flight.

Late last Thursday night, United Airlines officially launched its first Narita to Saipan flight which touched down at the Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport at around 1:37am last Friday morning. With United’s first direct flight from Narita, Japan to Saipan also came the long-awaited return of the CNMI’s Japan market.

Saipan Tribune learned that only about 80% of United’s 166-seater flight from Japan was occupied, however, it was still a great kick start to the return of the CNMI’s Japan market and it was still a cause for celebration for all CNMI community stakeholders involved in making the monumental event happen.

Aside from over a handful of Japanese tourists and Fam Tour participants, aboard the Narita-Saipan flight last Friday morning were Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, various cabinet members, and Mariana Visitors Authority board members.

According to Torres, the events that transpired last Friday were very special for all the people of the CNMI.

“I have always said that tourism is everyone’s business. Today is a great day for CNMI because we now have this partnership with United Airlines which not only brings back our Japanese tourists via direct flight, but also allows our locals to travel to the United States without having to stop by Guam,” he said.

When asked about the flight itself, Torres said overall the experience was nice but, most importantly, he thanked MVA, United Airlines, and CNMI stakeholders for working together to help make this flight possible.

“I’d like to thank MVA, the entire team from managing director Priscilla [Iakopo], to chairwoman Viola [Alepuyo] of course, our United partners. But more so to our Japanese friends, families, and tourists. I want to thank them and to welcome them. We look forward to a very successful partnership and again, to bring them back. Also to our business partners here in the CNMI, this is what drives our economy, our tourism. So this is one step again, to bringing back our income,” he said.

In an interview with Sam Shinohara, United Airlines managing director for airport operations for the Asia Pacific region, he echoed what Torres stated that last Friday was really a significant day for United Airlines, and for the CNMI community at large.

“It’s our very first direct flight service between the CNMI and Japan, and we’re really excited about it. It’s gonna take a lot of hard work to get the airplanes full, because not all of the restrictions in Japan are lifted, But over the course of the last couple of weeks, we’ve got some good news and we’re starting to see some forward momentum. We’re really excited about that. So this flight has a bright future ahead of it,” he said.

Meanwhile, in an interview with MVA managing director Priscilla Iakopo, she said the success of bringing back the Japan market in the CNMI can be attributed to team work between MVA, the administration, United Airlines, the Commonwealth Ports Authority, and many other agencies within the community who offered help in one way or another.

“This was teamwork. MVA cannot just take all the credit for this. CPA, of course, we work hand in hand. We all want to make sure that our people, our community do not go through another hardship of losing jobs, shortage of hours, and so that was our goal. Tourism is our only economic driver. We want to make sure that we did everything we can, we didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. We knew it was risky, but like we said, there’s a reason why we call this TRIP, it’s a Tourism Resumption Investment Plan,” she said.

In an interview with CPA chair Kimberlyn King-Hinds, she said she is so proud of what the CNMI has been able to accomplish in terms of tourism and she is excited for what’s to come.

“This is monumental. When you kind of think about just being able to reconnect Japan and the CNMI. That’s been something that MVA has been working really hard on. In 2018, with the launch of Skymark, we anticipated that that was going to be that link, but then unfortunately, the pandemic happened. Obviously, the market shut down. But getting this back online is not just about revenue, but it’s connecting people. For us here who live in this community, we’re so remote and isolated, so it’s a direct link. But then there’s also the economic benefit. More tourists means more jobs and more revenues and honestly, if we’re not talking about generating revenue for this economy, in anticipation of these federal funds running out, then what are we talking about? So this is the fruit of the hard work and the labor that MVA has put into reviving the tourism industry and infusing revenue into the economy. So congratulations, MVA, I’m really excited. I’m really proud,” she said.

Kimberly Bautista Esmores | Reporter
Kimberly Bautista Esmores has covered a wide range of news beats, including the community, housing, crime, and more. She now covers sports for the Saipan Tribune. Contact her at

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