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  • By Bea Cabrera

Skymark revives optimism for CNMI tourism

Skymark counter at Saipan airport

Saipan— Over the years, the CNMI has been experiencing decline in visits from Japanese tourists, businesses and residents around the islands. Various campaigns around Japan are in full effect to attract Japanese families, couples and independent travelers to come back to their once-upon-a-time “vacation haven.”

Delta Airlines’ withdrawal of its regular flights from Narita, Japan to Micronesia including Saipan in May last year due to low demand in the market added to the already many challenges. Since the withdrawal, The Office of the Governor and the Marianas Visitors Authority have been looking for airlines and working on negotiations to find a carrier to service Japan to Saipan flights.

Skymark Airlines Inc. heard the call of the Marianas and after a year of negotiations and meetings, they launched their inaugural non-stop flight from Narita to Saipan last Nov. 29.

TASI Tours & Transportation, Inc. is owned by JTB Corp. the largest travel agency in Japan was established 43 years ago on Saipan with the aim to build and grow the Japanese market in the CNMI. According to president Masato Tezuka, they have seen the high and lows and the different seasons of tourism in the CNMI.

“We have seen all the eras — from the birth to growth, and also from a decline to the almost nothing. Since Japan Airlines terminated their flights to the CNMI, we had to face and cope up with the declining trend and experienced hard times. The same goes when Delta Airlines withdrew flight service and then super typhoon Yutu,” Tezuka said.

“Now that Skymark Airlines has began servicing flights, we are pleased as we have been waiting for this opportunity for 15 months. Although there is a long historical tie between the two destinations, I felt that the bridge between Japan and Saipan had collapsed, but now there is hope again,” he added

Tazako said his company made preparations to provide special shuttle bus service (Sky-shuttle) from the airport and key hotels on Saipan starting on the first day of Skymark passengers’ arrival. “The shuttle bus has a new design with Skymark Logo and colors with Wi-Fi service. We also have special packages including accommodations and optional tours by collaborating with Skymark airlines on the web.”

“We would like to offer more attractive products and special privileges for customers who take Skymark flights and this is a collaboration with between us, Skymark Airlines and MVA. This is surely a promising step to invite more Japanese to come back to the CNMI,” Tazako added.

Former MVA managing director Chris Concepcion whose leadership was instrumental during the negotiations with Skymark Airlines, said this is a huge deal for the CNMI to have a Japan based carrier resume the Tokyo-Saipan route after JAL pulled out in 2005 and Delta pulled out in 2018.

“This means the Japan market will once again become a strong source market with potential to grow given it is the oldest and closest source country to the CNMI. Japanese tourists will start coming back in droves, which eventually we hope will lead to more Japanese investment in the CNMI,” he said.

“Personally, this means a lot to me because I worked really hard trying to convince them to fly here and all that work paid off. It took a lot of patience and tenacity for sure and looking back at that day when we met with the president of Skymark for the first time last year, it feels like destiny in many respects,” he added

Since super typhoon hit the Marianas in October last year, visitor arrivals have been low in numbers for the past few months and there have been talks that the influx of Japanese tourists will fill up the void.

“I think it is too soon to say that Japanese arrivals will make up for the loss in arrivals from Korea and China. If you look at outbound travel statistics, there are more Koreans and Chinese traveling outside their countries than Japanese but neither market is as mature as Japan, so Japan has the potential to become a very formidable source market for the CNMI,” Concepcion said.

“The good thing going for us is that our name recognition is strong in Japan. We just need to refresh our destination in order to attract new and repeat visitors, which encompasses everything from new or refurbished hotels, more brand name hotels, cleaner streets with sidewalks, drainage and landscaping, more upscale dining establishments, more brand name shopping options, more cultural attractions, and more new and exciting things to do in general,” he added.

Before the inaugural flight, excitement was in the air for local businesses on Saipan as they await the arrival of the Japanese. General manager Taka Tanzawa of Salty’s Grill & Café is one of the few wholly Japanese-owned bars still operating on Saipan. “We look forward to that as we expect the influx Japanese tourists once again on island. We have been busy planning to do something for them,” he said.

Jay Wolfe, owner of Marianas Creations pub/restaurant, said this will bring back diversification of the CNMI tourism market. “We hope that they will bring in customer traffic not only in our business but around the many establishments on Saipan. We are excited to be welcoming Japanese tourists back to the island”

“We do hope though that a lot of them are Japanese independent travelers and not tied to a group package so that they will have more digression how and where they are going to spend their time and money that will lead them supporting more businesses that are locally owned,” Wolfe added.

Tazako said one airline servicing the Japan-Saipan route is not enough though. “We cannot satisfy with one regular flight from Japan. We need to create more flights from different destinations in Japan to Saipan. From the CNMI point of view, it is better to have a good mixed market portfolio.”

“I think it is better for CNMI to have at least 25 percent Japanese market share of total visitors which will be most likely 150,000 visitors, Tazako said. “I am hopeful that the CNMI will be able to sustain and maintain Japanese market but to achieve this, lots of effort and positive trials needs to be done.”

Aside from the economic boost that Skymark Airlines will bring to the Marianas, Concepcion said it also means easy access to his favorite city in the world. “It means our many friends in Japan can come visit easily, it means that my wife, who is Japanese, can easily travel to Japan anytime now and lastly, it means we can fly to Tokyo very affordably to enjoy the sights, festivals, food culture, first world technology and attractions that are only three hours away.”

“I believe that the ‘Saipan’ brand has strong name recognition in Japan up to this day, Concepcion said. “Skymark's leadership team is made up of very accomplished, clever individuals, so they weighed their risks and opportunities and decided Saipan is the best place to begin their international expansion. We are excited to partner with them for the long-term future.”


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