Saipan— The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the world’s tourism into sleep mode. In the CNMI, the number of tourist arrivals is zero. But the Marianas Visitors Bureau won’t waste time moping. The agency looks ahead to post-pandemic recovery, recognizing that once global tourism reawakens, competition among destinations will be fierce. MVA has developed a 10-year sustainable tourism plan, which is being formulated to breed direction, cohesion and put the CNMI back in the game.
According to Tatiana Babauta, MVA’s product development manager, the goal is to complete a sustainable tourism plan by the end of November and a published plan by end of December. “MVA is focused on ‘sustainability’ and this is the reason why we need to incorporate economic, social and environmental planning and development because the tourism industry impacts these areas the most. Our motivation is to promote and develop the Northern Marianas Islands as a premiere destination of choice for visitors and to maximize quality of life for our people,” she said.
“We are beefing up our marketing strategies to develop programs that will have destination exposure to attract visitors to the CNMI, narrow target marketing efforts with a focus on the CNMI’s best prospects to counter competitors with larger marketing budgets,” she added.
The CNMI has been hyped as “a mini Hawaii,” if not an extension of Guam. But Babauta refutes these labels. “We are not any of those. We have our own identity and unique features that people will be attracted to and have been attracted to. Part of the plan is to incorporate in our branding the story of our community and local residents experience,” she said.
“MVA’s over reaching goals by 2030 for the CNMI tourism industry will honor Chamorro and Carolininan people heritage, showcase natural and cultural resources, provide authentic meaningful and memorable visitors experience, offer NMI travel packages and excursions to local residents and tourists to experience the Northern Islands, grow arrivals and average visitor expenditures, promote unique attractions and enhance tourist and historical sites to ensure a premiere destination experience for visitors that nurtures local culture and resources while supporting a growing and diversified economy,” she added.
Part of MVA’s plan is to highlight the Chamorro and Carolinian cultures. “This is our key selling point as this is the most unique that you can get. We have a history that goes back 4,000 years that we want to honor, preserve and protect. We are proud of it and we need to share it,” Babauta said.
MVA is targeting a 15 percent increase in local artists' participation in the annual Flame Tree Festival and Taste of the Marianas by 2025. By 2030, MVA hopes to hold monthly community cultural events on Saipan, Rota and Tinian in coordination with CNMI Department of Community and Cultural Affairs and local NGOs and cultural focused groups.
“Tourists nowadays want to have authentic experience and they choose the destination based on culture, nature and adventurous activities and CNMI has it all. We want our tourists to participate in our sports, cultural, environmental events and more,” Babauta said.
Prior to the pandemic, the CNMI’s economy had been on a rebound in the last few years, mainly on the strength of its tourism industry. In 2016, the CNMI’s real GDP increased 28.6 percent over the previous year, following two years of relatively rapid growth in 2014 and 2015. Chinese and Korean tourists have supplanted Japanese tourists in the last few years.
Saipan is famous for its Flame Trees that arch over Beach Road. Rota is famous for its lush green forest. Tinian is known for the Blowhole and the mystical House of Taga. Dotted with monuments and relics from World War II, the CNMI is a paradise for history enthusiasts. Tinian is home to Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that was used by the U.S. on Aug. 6, 1945 to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
And unlike Guam, whose culture is pretty much diluted by western influence, the CNMI has managed to retained many aspects of its culture. Chamorro and Carolinian languages remain widely spoken.
In the past couple of years, the CNMI experimented with market and product expansion by introducing the casino industry. The government accommodated the still unfinished Imperial Pacific casino complex, which attracted one scandal after another.
Now MVA reverts to organic approach that taps the community’s participation in the industry. MVA believes that tourism in the CNMI can only succeed with the help of residents. The plan includes making the community pro-active in terms of nurturing and participating it its success.
“Only the people of the Marianas can offer emotional and personal connection to the destination. To successfully deliver an organic experience to our travelers, the support of our people is vital,” Babauta said. “We want our local people to share their stories through arts, dance, music, local cuisine, photos videos and personal conversation with our travelers because with this, we can build a strong connection between our travelers and destination.”
Making tourists come to the CNMI doesn’t stop there. According to Babauta, customer satisfaction is also important and any information MVA gathers will help them formulate preventive or corrective actions.
“We want to focus on research and collecting data from visitors arriving at the CNMI through a “Customer Satisfaction Survey.’ We want to expand that we study about their expenditure by country and by age group so we know who we are targeting. The survey will also help us know who the market is so we can design programs or activities to target…and we want to do this consistently because it will be beneficial to our businesses and economy,” Babauta said.
“The CNMI has what it takes to be an important destination," Babauta said, citing studies which show that travelers 23 years old and younger are drawn to destinations where they can explore. Baby boomers prefer traditional sightseeing tours, not too crowded places. The millennials and generation Xers prefer beach destinations.
Babauta said the CNMI possesses all the qualities and destination features preferred by all age groups.
In line with the MVA’s Sustainable Tourism Plan is the revitalization of the Garapan tourist district. The CNMI Office of Planning and Development organized the Garapan Revitalization Task Force. OPD director Kodep Ogumoro-Uludong is one of the officers in charge of developing Garapan similar to what Waikiki is in Honolulu.
“In the pipeline is the plan to create a Community Improvement District for Garapan similar to how Waikiki in Hawaii manages their core tourism areas. The Waikiki Improvement District Association leads and works to enhance Waikiki’s physical, economic, and cultural environment. It is dedicated to ensuring the coordinated management and long-term sustainability of Waikiki Beach,” Babauta said. “This will enable residents, business owners and other stakeholders to organize a board that would allow them to manage the area.”
Currently, the majority of the tourists who come to the CNMI are from China, Korea and Japan. Babauta said MVA plans to reach out to other countries to expand its market. “We did not focus on the U.S. for many years but now it is time, the new generation in the mainland wants to know and explore the U.S., how big it is and the different aspects including U.S. territories. Other projects include several community projects, tour guide certification, destination enhancement and safety and security,” she added.
MVA’s ability to set an effective plan and implement will definitely result in different trends in the future of the CNMI tourism industry and Babauta said MVA has its eyes on the prize.