When the Northern Mariana Islands Football Association built the NMI Soccer Training Center, the intent was not only to highlight competition, but also open doors for tourism development opportunities through the sport.
That goal has been steadily realized, as several teams have visited Saipan and utilized the facility in Koblerville since inauguration in July last year. The recent squads to have set foot at the artificial turf of the NMISTC were the Beijing Elite Core Club and the Beijing 97 United Football Club, which played against the CNMI Boys U18 National Team and the M-League All-Stars in the Northern Marianas Invitational Football Tournament that concluded last Monday after three days of competition.
Beijing 97 United team manager Lingyu Yang, through an interpreter, said their group was impressed with the NMISTC, especially with its floodlight system, as it was pretty convenient for them to play at night. He also commended how well-organized the tournament was and if given an opportunity, they would love to come back or even bring other teams to Saipan and play at the soccer facility.
Jerry Tan, president of NMIFA, which organized the inaugural tournament in coordination with Century Tours, said the association is pleased to host off-island teams and provide them with an enjoyable experience playing at the NMISTC and challenging top-level squads in the Commonwealth.
“We are happy that our facility continues to draw interest from teams which are looking to play some games or train here. We are also pleased to work with the stakeholders in our tourism industry to help bring teams and their families here not only to play sports, but also enjoy our beautiful island,” Tan said.
Yang and his 10 teammates plus 18 family members went to Managaha Island last Sunday before their game against Beijing Elite and were in awe of the pristine waters of one of Saipan’s best attractions. Beijing Elite midfielder Ye Xiao and the group’s 18 other players and 14 family members also checked Saipan’s other sites and beaches and were impressed with what they saw. Besides the two Beijing squads and their families, six filming crew and three staff from Century Tours Beijing were also here for five days, getting footages to show back home.
Century Tours business development manager Owen Ji said that it is through the great experience of tourists and availability of excellent facilities in the CNMI that they are able to reach out to the China market.
“In order to promote Saipan and diversify the destination to compete with other island-destination, we recognize Saipan as a wonderful place for playing soccer in terms of facility, climate, and the short flying distance from China. With more travelers coming under sport tourism group, the local tourism industry will get to benefit as well. Overall, the visiting players were very impressed by the elaborate preparation from the NMIFA, the gorgeous scenery, and the local people’s warmth and hospitality,” Ji said.
Meanwhile, the Marianas Visitors Authority welcomed the NMIFA initiative and other events that aim at boosting sports tourism in the CNMI.
“The Marianas Visitors Authority considers sports as one of our top priorities to promote. We, as the tourism bureau, organize various familiarization tours with key media partners and travel partners for each sporting events to further expose and promote the event to our source markets,” MVA managing director Priscilla Iakopo said.
“We are always looking for opportunities and also welcoming opportunities to further have our destination be exposed as a suitable sport destination for professional trainings. Now, with the new soccer pitch we have and with the restoration of sporting venues, such as Oleai Sports Complex, we are confident that we will attract the attention of sport teams to choose our destination for training,” she added.
Besides the two Beijing teams, NMIFA has hosted the two Guam national squads (2018 Marianas Cup) and a Guam youth club at the NMISTC, and in the past has brought in groups from Japan and Taiwan. A few more teams from Japan and China have also approached NMIFA about the possibility of coming to Saipan and playing at the NMISTC early this year, but plans did not materialize because Super Typhoon Yutu came and caused significant damage to the island and its major facilities. The NMISTC has since undergone repairs post-Yutu and will continue to have upgrades through the help of the Asian Football Confederation, East Asian Football Federation, and other generous partners.
With NMIFA seeking for the continued improvement of the NMISTC, Tan, in coordination with MVA and other stakeholders in the tourism industry, is hoping to reach out to Korea in the future since the CNMI considers the Asian country as one of its top markets.
“We will continue to work with our partners not only to showcase high-level soccer tournaments/teams, but also look for opportunities to contribute to the growth of sports tourism in the CNMI. We definitely look forward to seeing more foreign teams enjoy our island hospitality and great facility,” the NMIFA president said. (PR)