Selling the CNMI as a tourist destination should not just mean selling the islands as separate destinations but as one, multi-island destination, where Saipan tourists can also go to Tinian or Rota on day trips, or go on an adventure trek in the Northern Islands—all while preserving the islands’ natural beauty and marketing the islands’ pristine state.
This, in brief, was the focus of a presentation yesterday during the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors general membership meeting at the Kensington Hotel Saipan in San Roque, with Darlene Zhai who joined online, as guest speaker.
Zhai, who is the author of the Sustainable Tourism Development Study prepared for the Marianas Visitors Authority in 2017, said the Marianas has the natural beauty that is competitive with other top-tier destinations like Fiji, Maldives, and French Polynesia. “To move toward that direction, we have to work on destination improvement efforts…and it is about making the best use of what the Marianas has to offer to turn it into a world-class destination,” she said.
Zhai, an expert on destination tourism planning and sustainable development, is no stranger to the CNMI as she has traveled around the islands several times and the experience has helped her come up with a plan on how to repackage CNMI into a multi-island destination.
“All the islands in the CNMI have pristine environment and untouched beauty that caters to a larger, unique and upworthy experiences that could elevate its position as a multi-island destination,” she said.
According to her, it is important to recognize that Saipan is the hub of the Marianas as it has the largest tourism activities and attractions. “In order for the Marianas to succeed as a multi-island destination, it is imperative that Saipan’s existing facilities undergo extensive revitalization. …Two hindering factors are the accommodation imagery (old facilities and hotels) and limited global brand representation,” Zhai said.
“Competing destinations like Guam and Hawaii also have hotels, many of them international brands. They were developed in the ’70s and ’80s but they have undergone numerous rounds of renovations throughout the years to remain competitive and to make sure that their revenue generating capabilities are maximized. Although facilities are old on Saipan, they are located in a great shoreline size, which helps to get good reviews online ,” Zhai said.
She noted that Saipan is also home to numerous tourist attractions and activities. “This includes Managaha tours for snorkeling and diving opportunities and Garapan for the shops and restaurants. …If you look at online reviews, the natural beauty of the islands are always highlighted and this shows that there is room for improving the destination, better management of these areas to take it to the next level,” she said.
According to Zhai, Saipan has the potential to attract what’s called in the business as “free independent travelers” and it can open opportunities for international hotel brands to come in by giving them attractive lease agreements, thereby new job opportunities that will make it harder for the younger generation to leave.
To attract tourists who are already on Saipan to explore other islands, access to these islands is critical. “Tinian is a great attraction as an ideal day-trip or get-away destination, provided accessibility from Saipan to Tinian is available. …Scheduled ferry service and flights from Saipan are important to facilitate day trips. …Additional creative access options can include helicopter and seasonal fishing excursion from Saipan to Tinian,” she said.
Revitalizing and building upon Tinian’s existing natural and cultural assets would also make for a great base for hundreds of thousands of guests arriving via Saipan each year, she said. That could include branding Tinian as the “Festival Island of the Marianas,” supplemented with great local cuisine and sporting events, and packaging the Tinian tour with a roundtrip ferry with access to three signature attractions like House of Taga, Exploration Trails at Punta Carolinas, and Taga Beach, with options for tourists to visit North Field or join Goat Island Adventures.
“These will sound attractive to tourists and are great opportunities for tourists to explore,” Zhai added.
Zhai described Rota as a perfect setting for tourists who are looking for “return to nature” experiences because Rota is centered around its natural beauty. “We can put Rota in premium positioning for upmarket guests that after more meaningful experiences. …The idea is to offer nature-based experiences to a small amount of market guests that will allow them to interact, have harmonious relations with residents that ties in perfectly with Rota’s reputation as a friendly island and nature’s Treasure Island,” she said.
In terms of Rota accommodation, Zhai said the most ideal is to have small-scale properties—like a 50-room bungalow style that is centered around nature and not adding pressure to the existing local infrastructure. In terms of attractions, Rota has a complete collection of relics or historical sites that represent culture or ethnicity that has had a significant influence on the Marianas, Zhai said.
“The idea here is to market the entire island as a nature reserve which is an opportunity that is rarely available in larger destinations,” she added.
In her presentation, the Northern Islands, particularly Pagan, was also highlighted and seen as destination for hardcore adventure seekers. “We are looking for real adventurers and special occasion guests to be attracted to come and see the Northern Islands. Since there are no available accommodations, we can showcase the true uniqueness of the destination by the ‘live aboard’ experience and explore potentials for permanent facilities in the future. …The main highlight is the opportunity to be able to explore more than one islands, whether it’s visiting the Black Beach, enjoying water activities at the lake or being able to hike in completely untouched forests and beautiful caves, and of course, a lot of water activities for snorkeling and diving and appropriate sites,” Zhai said.
“While most of their nights are going to be spent on the boat, there could be opportunities in the immediate term to be looking at glamping options, whether in a tent or a self-contained trailer. …There could be opportunities to have more permanent facilities like having a tent camp, like some tours offered in South Africa. It would be a perfect setting for something like this,” Zhai added.
Collating the attractions of each island, Zhai suggested potential itineraries that can promote island hopping and target the different islands in one trip or one destination.
GCEA co-chair Jerry Tan said this is in line with the GCEA’s vision of transforming the Marianas into a multi-island destination that they hope will be fully executed by 2030. He recounted that the GCEA put together the Public-Private Partnership initiative, which he described as “a combination of experience and resources of the private and public sectors with the intention of helping the CNMI develop into a world-class destination.”
“All the islands are seen as part the opportunity. They are all part of the brands and also rely on tourism to have an economy. …I look at this opportunity to finally be able to see tourists stay longer and want to visit the other islands because that is the ultimate success of the Marianas as a destination,” he said.
According to Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, who is also a GCEA co-chair, funds from the American Rescue Plan Act will be used to fund projects that pertain to boosting tourism and projects of the Marianas Visitor’s Authority.
The GCEA was formed in May last year.