Domestic tourism on the rise
CNMI businesses tap the too often ignored local market
Saipan— Over the years, tourism has been the main economic driver for the CNMI. Attracting visitors from neighboring Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and China has always been the main focus of the industry stakeholders. But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world last year, the CNMI was compelled to close its border.
With foreign tourists shut out of the commonwealth islands, the focus shifted to the only market that businesses currently have: the local residents. While implementing Covid19-related protocols, businesses have changed their approach and rebranded to cater to the local crowd.
The international brand Bubba Gump, an instant tourist attraction in Garapan, reopened in July last year after being shuttered for four months.
“People used to say that Bubba Gump was expensive. I say it might have been in the past, but we are now in the future. We are designing our menus and prices based on local consumption rather than tourists,” said Robert H. Jones, chairman and CEO of Triple J Enterprises. “It has been tough in the last few months. But we want to make a statement today that we want to put prices based on the regular income on the island. Our goal and hope is to be able to get a lot of locals to join us, enjoy the new prices and experience the new improvements.
Having buffet meals with family and friends is a popular island activity. Restaurants have reopened with new protocols. Instead of hopping from one dish station to another, people stay in their tables where they are served unlimited amounts of food. Customers were initially disoriented by the new setup, but eventually came to accept this as the “new normal.”
Staycation promos offered by hotels is another local attraction that has received good response.
According to Gloria Cavanagh, chair of Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, hotel staycations were offered at the right time. “When the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance checks came out, a big number of people came out to get away from their homes and stayed in hotels for a night or a weekend. They wanted to escape even temporarily from what is actually happening in the community, economy and the world,” she said.
“Kensington Hotel in San Roque had a better opportunity offering staycation packages because in the past, locals did not really feel welcome at Kensington because it catered to high-end tourists,” Cavanagh said.
Kensington Hotel is owned by E-Land/Micronesia Resort Inc., which also operates the Pacific Island Club Saipan and Coral Ocean Point Golf Course.
Cavanagh said Brian Shin, the new E-Land president and CEO, wanted locals “to experience what Kensington is all about and the outcome was receiving great vibes from the locals.”
Cavanagh said some hotels have closed while others are trying to hang on even by operating just on weekends. “We are basically hanging on a thread. People do not understand how much it actually costs to run a hotel and how much it actually takes to close a hotel,” she said. “We are talking about millions of dollars in losses. That is why I admire Hyatt Regency Saipan.”
Hyatt has remained opened to accommodate business travelers including officials and employees of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“To open rooms at a 12-percent occupancy cost more money than it is to close it. That is a real dedication to the community to remain open seven days a week,” Cavanagh said.
She cited a study from a couple of years ago, which analyzed the multiplier effect of domestic spending. “We have vendors that open because [hotels] open. Just by opening a single restaurant or a bar creates money that goes around the island. It may not be enough, obviously, for our fiscal year 2021, but it does circulate around the community and many benefit from it,” she added.
Saipan Mayor David Apatang said seeing businesses open even during the pandemic is a sign of progress. “To open a new business or re-open an (existing) one is a good opportunity for people to get back on their feet and an opportunity for visitors when they come in again,” he said.
Bes House of Chicken and Mariana Nails are among the several new businesses that opened last month. They knew they would appeal to local customers.
Leo Legaspi, manager of Bes House of Chicken, said opening the restaurant was already in the final planning stages when the pandemic hit. “I decided to push through with this plan so people will have a new food or restaurant option and to brave the current circumstances because this was really my plan for this year,” he said. “There are advantages and disadvantages to opening a business during the pandemic but I chose to focus on the advantages—serving the community good food at affordable prices and to also give them something new.”
Mariana Nails manager Kelly Jackson recognized that opening a business during the pandemic entails a lot of risks, “but this was my goal pre-pandemic. Although the pandemic did throw us a lot but it did not deter us. Basically, what we did was focus on our prices to make sure that our services are reasonably priced. This way, people are more inclined to come in and pamper themselves,” she said.
In May last year, the CNMI government implemented a five-color coding scheme called Community Vulnerability, from the highest (red) to the safest, (green), to inform the public of the current level of the CNMI’s vulnerability to Covid-19.
Currently, the CNMI is under “Level Blue,” which means partial resumption of international flights, increased building occupancy to allow establishments to open up to 75 percent of their original capacity. Curfew is now from 2 a.m. to at 4 a.m. Partial restaurant and bar operations are now permitted at 50 percent of their occupancy limit, and dining is now allowed. The community is still required to practice the 3Ws: wear your mask, wash your hands and watch your distance.
Warren Villagomez, director of the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.’ Public Health and Hospital Emergency Preparedness Program, said businesses openings and reopenings indicate the success of the CNMI’s Covid19-related measures. “People are compliant with Covid19 protocols, whether they are indoors or outdoors. We feel good about it. What we are also trying to do is to make sure that all data collected are accurate and we have the infrastructure in place,” he said.
Villagomez said the government’s goal is to vaccinate “to the highest number we can in the CNMI. “CHCC CEO Ester Muna has a great structure in place to make sure that everyone in the CNMI will be vaccinated accordingly,” he said. “This is also one trigger that will push re-opening of many more businesses and the economy eventually.”
For “local tourists” from Saipan, Tinian is a convenient “travel destination,” Mayor Edwin P. Aldan said. “I am glad it is easy to hop on a plane to Tinian and the influx of people rejuvenates our businesses on Tinian,” he said. “One of the things that we try to do is maintain the tour sites. Once in while we get some hiccups as our office is the one taking care of more than 30-plus sites on Tinian since the Marianas Visitors Authority has furloughed staff.”
This February, the Tinian Hot Pepper Festival will be the CNMI's first signature event for this year. “We hope that people from Saipan and Rota will come to Tinian as this will help local businesses a lot,” Aldan said.
Rota also receives visitors from Saipan. “We are not having any travelers from Guam due to Covid19 concerns. Local people go out, eat out but it is not as lucrative as before because some establishments temporarily closed and some have limited capacity,” said Sen. Victor Hocog of Rota.
“The vaccine arriving on our island is highly anticipated. It is already happening in Saipan and Tinian. If everyone gets vaccinated in the CNMI, there is nowhere to go but to open up the CNMI once again to the world and revitalize the economy,” he added.