WHEN the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, the Marianas’ borders were immediately closed to visitors. Some hotels stopped their operations, while some remained partially open, leaving many people without a job or working shortened hours. At the Saipan international airport, only one airline company was operating on a limited schedule, causing airport revenues to nosedive.

The tourism industry, the main economic driver of the Marianas, took a heavy blow from the pandemic right when we were on track to recover from Super Typhoon Yutu. What came next were months of uncertainty about how we would survive this crisis.

Fortunately, federal aid allowed individuals and businesses to stay afloat. However, we all know this assistance will come to an end, and we must take the initiative to start the long road to recovery. The Marianas Visitors Authority, after extensive meetings with industry stakeholders, came up with the Tourism Resumption Investment Plan or TRIP, a program to provide subsidies to airlines, hotels, travel agencies, and related businesses to help jumpstart tourism. 

The Marianas has done a great job in managing the pandemic, and as a result, was able to establish a travel bubble agreement with South Korea and implement a plan to safely reopen our doors to travelers.

The Marianas finally welcomed visitors last July after more than a year without tourism arrivals. The travel bubble started at a slow pace for the first two months as expected. Resumption after a pandemic is something that we’ve never done before. It took time to understand the process and learn how to execute a plan. This month, the numbers continue to grow, and we welcomed 303 visitors this past week.

After the quarantine period and when a negative test is received, these visitors are allowed to patronize other establishments, which have also called back their furloughed employees. The ripple effects of the travel bubble agreement and TRIP on small businesses are evident. Restaurants, bars, cafés, retail stores, car rentals, and others have also reopened.

MVA is extending the TRIP program until December. This is perfect timing as the last quarter is considered a high season for the Marianas. The CNMI-South Korea travel bubble is one of the hottest topics in Korea. There are hundreds of positive reviews from visitors who experienced the program.  Tourists are appreciating the opportunity to travel amid the pandemic, and they truly believe the Marianas is one of the safest places to visit despite some restrictions on their itineraries.  We already have more than 4,000 reservations for the next three months waiting to be confirmed.

The effects are being felt beyond Saipan. More tourists from Korea are booking multi-island packages to experience Rota and Tinian, which are new destinations for them.  It is a pleasant surprise to see more visitors stay for two weeks or longer. We have not witnessed this in the last few years. 

Under the TRIP program, visitors will get travel vouchers when they visit Rota and Tinian, and these need to be spent in the islands. Providing travel bucks and other incentives is a common practice among competing destinations, especially at this time. For example, a hotel in Hawaii is offering a 40% discount on room rates for a 14-day stay or longer, while in New Orleans, one establishment is offering $3,000 for a month-long stay with free daily breakfast. Some destinations are also covering the costs of PCR testing for tourists.

The Marianas’ attractive offer, the Covid-19 Task Force’s effective system of screening incoming passengers, and the island’s high vaccination rate give our visitors confidence that the Marianas is a safe place to visit. As we continue to build South Koreans’ confidence to travel to the Marianas, we can explore the possibility of offering our multi-island package to other markets, such as Japan.  It takes time to create this momentum, and I truly believe we are on the right path to becoming one of the most successful destinations to revive its tourism industry.

For more information, visit the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers at cnmieconomy.com, engage on Facebook and Instagram (@cnmigov.economy), or contact them at gceacnmi@gmail.com

Brian Shin is the chief executive officer of the Micronesia Resort Incorporation, a subsidiary of the South Korean tourism and retail conglomerate, E-Land Group. He leads the operation of the Kensington Hotel Saipan, Pacific Islands Club Saipan, and the Coral Ocean Golf Resort. As a key stakeholder in the industry, he serves as a member of the Tourism Infrastructure Reboot Committee for the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers, an advisory council for Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios. The GCEA’s mission is to improve the quality of life in the Marianas for all residents.

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