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  • Writer's pictureBy Bea Cabrera

More than sun and sand, the CNMI is a four-in-one destination

Saipan-- Since its formation last year, the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors has been focused on rebranding the CNMI into a world-class destination.

At the general membership meeting held Wednesday, GCEA was presented with ways and ideas on how to rebuild CNMI into a multi-island integrated destination to target not only its current tourism base from Asia, but also global travelers.

The presentation was led by Darlena Zhai, a tourism expert who has been involved in over 300 tourism and hospitality projects across Asia, Pacific Islands, the Caribbean and Africa.

She has been to the islands of the CNMI several times and her experience makes for a good foundation to help the islands maximize their historical significance and natural beauty.

She dissected the three islands, Saipan, Tinian and Rota, pointing out their individual strengths and weaknesses.

Saipan, for example, has the potential to attract free independent travelers. Such an appeal opens opportunities for international hotel brands to come in by giving attractive lease agreements. And with new job opportunities, the younger travelers would not want to leave to find other opportunities in the mainland.

“We need to revitalize Saipan’s image to achieve vibrancy and quality by utilization of key natural and cultural resources, showcase the beauty and heritage of the Marianas," Zhai said.

She also cited the importance of improving amenities not only for tourists but for local residents, as well, in order to maintain high-quality attraction that adds meaningfully to the destination.

Zhai recommended the revitalization of Garapan, and at the same time, extending the development beyond the central tourist district. She also suggested the creation of community event spaces for high-street and off-price retailers and more food and beverage outlets.

Members of the Governor's Council of Economic Advisors met at Kensington Hotel July 21, 2021. Photo by Bea Cabrera

Zhai said Tinian is a great attraction as an ideal day-trip destination provided accessibility from Saipan to Tinian is available.

“Scheduled ferry service and flights from Saipan are critical to facilitate day trips," she said. "Additional creative access options can include helicopter and seasonal fishing excursion from Saipan to Tinian."

She noted that revitalizing and building on Tinian's existing natural and cultural assets are a great base for hundreds of thousands of guests arriving via Saipan to the Marianas each year.

“Packaging the Tinian tour with a roundtrip ferry with access to three signature attractions like House of Taga, Exploration Trails at Punta Carolinas and Taga Beach, gives tourists options to visit North Field and join Gota Island Adventures. Branding Tinian the ‘Festival Island of the Marianas,’ supplemented with great local cuisine and sporting events, will sound attractive to tourists,” Zhai added.

Rota is a perfect setting for tourists who are looking for rustic luxury and return-to-nature experiences.

“We can put Rota in premium positioning for upmarket guests who after more meaningful experiences. We need to ensure the natural beauty remains pristine to sustain Rota’s uniqueness and focus on community-based tourism,” Zhai said.

"The idea is to offer nature-based experiences to a small number of market guests that also emphasize a harmonious relationship between the residents and the visitor experience, which is what community-based tourism is all about. This ties in perfectly with Rota’s reputation as a friendly island and nature's Treasure Island,” she added.

The unexplored Northern Islands, particularly Pagan, can attract rush-lust travelers looking for adventures.

“We are looking for real adventures and special occasion guests and since no accommodations are available, we can showcase the true uniqueness of the destination by liveaboard experience and explore the potential for permanent facilities in the future," Zhai said.

"The main highlight, of course, is the opportunity to be able to explore in more than one islands, whether it's visiting the black beach, enjoying water activities at the lake or being able to hike to completely untouched forests and beautiful caves, and of course, a lot of water activities for snorkeling and diving and appropriate sites," Zhai said

“While most of their nights are going to be spent on the boat, there could be opportunities in the immediate term to be looking at glamping options whether in a tent or a self-contained trailer. There could be opportunities to have more permanent facilities like having a tent camp like the one in South Africa jetlag would be a perfect setting for something like this,” Zhai added

Zhai said overall, the CNMI has what it takes to be a world-class destination because every island has something unique to offer.


“Quality beach holidays for leisure travelers and incentive groups on Saipan, fun unique and cultural day trip attractions on Tinian, niche and rustic retreats for top-tier guests looking for special occasion experiences on Rota and true adventure on the Northern Islands,” she said

The presentation was well-received and many of the points presented were in conjunction with what GCEA is working on, according to GCEA chair Jerry Tan.

“The goal and objective of the GCEA is really about the quality of life for the residents, what we do for the tourists is just part of the economy," Tan said.

"Part of what is important for me is really to become a multi-integrated destination because we cannot be successful as a destination in the Marianas if we do not succeed in bringing the 25,000 tourists targeted for Rota and Tinian and also start the Northern Island which is very exciting,” he said.

“All the islands are seen as part the opportunity, they are all part of the brands and also rely on tourism to have an economy…I look at the opportunity to finally be able to see that tourists are staying longer and wanting to visit the other islands because that is the ultimate success of the Marianas as a destination,” he added.

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