By Bea Cabrera
Reboot, rebuild, rebrand
Updated: Apr 5, 2021
CNMI hoping to reemerge as a world-class destination
Saipan—After over a year, the Covid-19 pandemic that has cost millions of lives worldwide continues to challenge economies, the state of public health, education and various industries. The pandemic has prompted us to veer away from a world that we used to know as normal.
The Northern Mariana Islands’ leaders and businessmen have shifted their perspective, seeing the tourism pause as an opportunity to spruce up and rebuild —and rebrand — the typhoon-battered islands into a world-class destination by 2031.
“We all have a stake in this,” said CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres, who cochairs the 14-member Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers, which he formed in May 2020.
The panel hopes to help create a master plan for jumpstarting the economy including opening its borders to the world again.
The council sets a collective goal, recommends what businesses to open and how to open those businesses. “We all move in that one direction,” Torres said.
The goal is not to create band-aid solutions, but to make the CNMI a world-class destination by 2031, according to the council’s co-chair Jerry Tan, CEO and president of Tan Holdings Inc.
“We are not only talking about destination transformation for each tourist or significant site,” Tan said. “We mean more than enhancement because if we want the CNMI to be a world-class destination then we should do more than just cleanup.”
Besides economic development, the council believes in quality over quantity. “Our plans are about wanting to improve quality of life for both the people of the CNMI and those who visit us,” Tan said. “We really don’t have any business talking about quantity because in reality, we have limited resources that is why we want quality of life for the people.”
Since tourism is the lifeblood of the CNMI’s economy, Tan pointed out that the council’s approach will be parts and pieces put together to achieve quality tourism. “We want to invite high or big spenders to come in because this is a group of people who are willing to spend more during their vacation,” Tan said.
The CNMI is also targeting “quality investors,” who will build quality hotel accommodations. “That’s why we recommend ‘branding’ or inviting more international hotel brands to the islands,” Tan said. “For this to be possible, we recommend to institute a branding requirement for all future public leases and extension proposals for hotel establishments and increase financial resources derived from public lands and grant leases to qualified investors.”
Tan said a survey by the Marianas Visitors Bureau revealed CNMI’s visitors were not happy with current accommodations. Most local hotels have not been upgraded for many years.
To start the reboot, the council formed three committees: Domestic Policy and Recovery Committee led by Mike Sablan, vice president of Triple J Enterprises, Inc.; Tourism Infrastructure Reboot led by Alex Sablan Tan Holding’s Corporate Business Development vice president, and; Fiscal & Economic Diversification led by Matthew Deleon Guerrero former Governor’s chief of staff to reach out to the community, businesses, ethnic groups and non-governmental organizations.
“Early on, we put together the public-private partnership, a combination of experience and resources of the private and public sectors with the intention of helping the CNMI develop into a world-class destination,” Tan said. “We started with six members and now we have over 40 members covering 30 sites.”
Even prior to Covid, improving the tourist sites and rehabilitating facilities that have been damaged by a series of typhoons have been on the table. “I drove around when we have time. We go hiking and tour around the island like a tourist. We realized how badly damaged many of our tourist sites are from Yutu and some even from the of Soudelor,” Tan said.
The CNMI’s goal is to present the islands in a much better shape. The industry’s 10-year plan includes a better garbage collection system to reduce the waste and debris around beaches and tourist sites.
The council is also recommending the privatization of the Marpi Visitor’s Center, which manages several historical sites in the northern part of Saipan.
The CNMI has adopted a tourism resumption blueprint that guides the reopening plan for the visitor industry. This year, the Marianas Visitors Authority is working on the partial resumption of tourism from South Korea.
But with its planned travel bubble with South Korea still up in the air,
the CNMI is revisiting its ties with Japan as the commonwealth prepares to welcome tourists back this summer.
Commonwealth officials earlier announced its travel bubble plan with South Korea but the Korean Ministry of Land Infrastructure and Transport have yet to respond to the CNMI’s proposal.
Torres noted that the CNMI has historical and significant economic and tourism relations with Japan, and his economic advisers have determined this is the right time to re-engage the Japanese market as the islands prepare to safely open their borders.
MVA recently reopened its representative office in Japan in preparation for the resumption of travel tentatively slated for this summer
Transforming the CNMI into a world-class destination is not expected to happen overnight. Tan said, hopefully, the initiatives in 2021 are fully executed in 10 years. “This includes Rota and Tinian as well because we strongly believe that we will be a very good and competitive destination if we can have multiple islands for our tourists especially post-pandemic tourists want to visit more islands like in Hawaii,” he said.
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