By Bea Cabrera
Saipan— The Northern Mariana Islands is seeing an uptick in flight and hotel bookings and the numbers are more than what the industry stakeholder previously anticipated.
While the rest of the world continues to fight the spread of Covid-19, the CNMI boasts of its safe destination badge serving as its default marketing campaign.
Located 135 miles from Guam, which is a red zone, the CNMI has managed to keep the spread of Covid-19 under control. Its travel advisory is under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s level 1 category.
The Tourism Investment Program (TRIP) for South Korea is the CNMI’s first travel bubble agreement with a foreign country.
Launched in July, the program’s goal is to jumpstart the CNMI economy, which is sinking in the mire due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic came while the commonwealth was still recovering from the destructive super typhoons Mangkhut and Yutu that shattered its islands in 2018.
TRIP consists of procedures developed by government and business leaders that guide the CNMI’s travel and quarantine protocols as well as incentive programs for tourists, airlines, hotels and tour operators.
Two months after TRIP started, the delta and alpha variants emerged, but these threats did not deter the influx of tourists from South Korea.
“CNMI is the only travel destination that the government of South Korea has a travel bubble agreement with,” said Ivan Quichocho, a member of the Marianas Visitor Authority board. “For the most part, a huge reason we are seeing an uptick in bookings is the solid foundation that the CNMI administration, Covid-19 Task Force and Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. have established in terms of our health and safety protocols for arriving passengers.”
The CNMI’s Covid-19 total cases as of Sept. 21 was 263. Delta and alpha variants have been identified among some of the incoming passengers on United Airlines flights from Guam. None was identified from the TRIP flights.
“We are watching what is happening in Guam and Hawaii. The protocols we have set, in our opinion, are working,” said Esther Muna, the hospital’s CEO. “TRIP participants are all tested. They’re even tested before they leave the CNMI and none of them had positive results.”
Korea, which has only a 42 percent vaccination rate, is still considered outside the safe zone. But Korean travel agencies said their customers recognize the CNMI as a safe zone compared to other destinations in the Asia-Pacific region, according to TRIP Korea chair Tommy Kim. “The urge to travel to a destination that is Covid-19 safe is a big come-on for Korean travelers,” Quichocho said.
He said South Korean carriers and travel agents earlier forecasted CNMI travel bookings to be around 686. But as early as the first week of September, MVA was already tracking 652 TRIP passengers.
“The agents have been aggressively selling and pushing. I know there are a number of agents on the ground that have put together campaigns and programs that are moving very well,” Quichocho said.
For the month of October, MVA projected 853 arrivals from Korea. “Daily bookings are at a pace of a minimum of 100 bookings per day, which means that October projections will be achieved if not exceeded,” Quichocho said.
He said the South Korean government’s endorsement of travel destinations for its citizens gives more mileage to the TRIP.
“We are on every landing page of the major travel wholesale sites for tour agents. We are on every opera show on every channel that promotes outbound vacations,” Quichocho said.
The South Korean media’s coverage of the CNMI, Quichocho said, has created a buzz that MVA would otherwise be paying for.
“We can't even put a dollar figure to it as there's just so much,” he said. “We're the only destination they can go to and that's invaluable. If we try to buy advertisements or market influence like that, it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.”
A total of 384 workers in the quarantine and hybrid hotels are back at work. “Without TRIP, I don't know if they'd be working at the moment,” Quichocho said. “This is an opportunity for people to be bridging themselves from financial ruin.”
He added that more than 90 travel vendors have resumed their operations. They are members of the World Travel and Tourism Council, which is composed of airlines, hotels, travel agencies and operators.
The initial success of TRIP motivates MVA to move on to other markets. The CNMI is looking at Australia because the soon-to-launch Marianas Pacific Airline would initially target travelers from Australia, Japan, Korea and the Philippines.
A travel bubble agreement with Japan is currently in the pipeline and is targeted to be launched in mid-December and will run until January 2022.
“As aggressive as we are with South Korea, let's be just as aggressive with the Australia and Japan markets,” MVA board chair Viola Alepuyo said. “We only have one thing that we could sell right now, and that is how our community is staying safe. That's a marketing tool that no one else in this region can boast of.”