Tourism and toilets


I recently ran into an old chum from my hometown. We hadn’t seen each other in over 30 years. All those years have to go somewhere. For most of us they go into work. With this in mind, I ‘m going to reel in the years, stow away the time, and ponder my decades of working in the travel and tourism industries.

Sometimes this work has been full time. Sometimes it’s been part time. On occasion it has simmered on a back burner while I stirred other pots.

Anyway, a large chunk of these years were invested on Saipan and neighboring islands.

If you do anything for long enough, you usually realize that the lessons you learn aren’t flashy and dramatic, but are, by contrast, pretty much gray and mundane.

For example, when an amateur sees a private jet they’ll usually ask how fast it goes; a professional, by contrast, will probably ask about the toilet.

You’d think that a lot has changed in the past few decades, but I don’t think the basics of tourism (I’ll just lump travel and tourism together here for convenience) have changed at all.

For one thing, tourism is still a people business.

For another thing, it’s an industry that is wide open for mom-‘n’-pop operations. The notion of the innkeeper, for example, dates back to before biblical times. I had to ask somebody about that historical context, actually, just so I could inject a false note of erudition here. My grasp of history stops at anything that predated the Chevrolet Monza.

Anyway, for those who prefer human contact to the cold glare of computer screens, and for those who have a taste for independent work or for entrepreneurial endeavors, tourism is just as viable now as it was decades ago.

A related point is that tourism can provide some good upward mobility. I’ve known hotel general managers who started out as minimum-wage employees.

I also knew one guy on Saipan who started off as a minimum-wage foreign worker who swept the hangar floors for an air tour business. He proved to be reliable, friendly, and a quick learner. His employer eventually sent him to school to get his FAA license as an aircraft mechanic (called an “A&P” in the trade for “Airframe and Powerplant” technician). That’s a solid credential, with a mean annual wage of $61,190. I know many A&P’s who pull down over $80,000. Not a bad career for a guy who started out by pushing a broom.

Meanwhile, I’ve talked with a number of managers who lament the fact they can’t find employees who can sustain basic verbal interactions with customers. Apparently, being able to deal with actual people, instead of virtual ones, is an ever-rarer skill.

Employment markets, alas, are never very efficient or transparent. So, no matter how good you are with people, it can take a lot of time, effort, and even job-hopping to find a suitable gig in tourism. Fortunately, the field is as wide as the world is. There’s no shortage of places to try out.

And a fresh crop of talent is finding its way into those places, be they well-known or obscure, hot or cold, orderly or chaotic. Some of my friends have kids who are going to be the first generation in their recent family histories not to go to college. They are striking out for new horizons and a hands-on interaction with reality. Green pastures carry an energy that grayed ivy does not.

But even green can have gray linings. It is, unfortunately, just the nature of the industry that it does attract its share of chiselers and scoundrels, as will any industry that feeds off of itinerant clients. Fortunately, the bad element generally has a self-limiting ecosystem. If you steer clear of the slime and stick to better circles, you can enjoy the company of a lot of great people.

I’ve seen economies zig and zag, various destinations rise and fall, and hemlines go up and down, but I’ve never seen tourism lack opportunities. While Saipan often bemoans its fate in tropical paradise, I don’t forget that bustling Las Vegas was carved out of a barren desert.

Noting that tourism offers opportunities, however, is not the same as saying it throws off easy money. Furthermore, chasing opportunity often means packing a bag and moving to some distant corner of the world where there’s no guarantee that things will work out. Fortune favors the bold, as the saying goes.

Although I’ve seen many good livings earned in tourism, I’ll have to admit that I haven’t seen a lot of actual fortunes come from it. But I have seen a few. Maybe a Saipan Tribune reader will be the next one. In that case, you’ll be wanting to buy a private jet.

When that day comes, you can join the true elite: The people who know what “belted potty” means.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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