Northern Mariana Islands tourism after Hurricane Yutu

By | March 7, 2020

hi welcome to another myd global
episode I’m your host Leann Hackman-Carty in
today’s episode I’m speaking with Maxine Laszlo the executive director of the
Saipan Chamber of Commerce if you don’t know where Saipan is it’s actually in
the Northern Mariana Islands which is in the area of Guam it’s really in the
Micronesia area of the Pacific Ocean and in October 2018 Typhoon Yutu went
through and devastated a large part of the island but it’s been building back
especially the tourism industry so stay tuned as we talk about the opportunities
for the future for Saipan and hopefully by the end of the episode you’re going
to want to book your flight to Saipan and help support the community in their
recovery hi Maxine thanks for joining us today
oh thank you so much for having me I’m really really excited to talk to the
community to the disaster community so can you tell us a little bit about
yourself before we get into it so I’m currently the executive director of our
Saipan Chamber of Commerce I actually started in that role two weeks before
typhoon YouTube before that I was the executive director of our long-term
recovery agency which is local it was called CARE we were rebuilding homes
from our other cat 5 typhoon Typhoon Soudelor so from 2015 so we had finished the
rebuilding of that in June of 2018 before the typhoon hit before that I was
an AmeriCorps volunteer with CARE the long-term recovery agency and I had just
graduated from my MPA from Indiana University I’ve been out here for about three and a half years
okay great and and I can tell it’s windy there the trade winds come which still
brings tropical depressions and some more types it’s been a very active here
so so I know it was last it was October 2018 when typhoon Yutu hit the
Northern Mariana Islands and can you tell me a little bit about that day that
time I mean I understand you were there it was a very devastating day I remember
I remember walking out my front door and just starting to bawl because it had
happened to our community again I think that the general sentiment after typhoon
Soudelor was devastation you know that we were stronger and that we
collectively came together as a community and then but but traditionally
those strong typhoons only came once every 30 years there was this
expectation that we wouldn’t be going through this again so to walk outside
and to see the houses demolished and the roofs off and the powerlines all down
our concrete power light poles over it the first day was really devastating but
after that I think that after that initial shock of we are actually going
through this again everyone stepped up and really came together as a community
and specifically the business community there are they started to import
different goods that people would need more for survival they were donating they
were providing food there were just so many ways that recovery wouldn’t have
happened without the businesses stepping up and making sure that there were
resources that they could provide to people that for a few months there was
still this general sentiment of we had survived and then you kind of go through
that this is so really hard the economy is still tanked we are tourism numbers
are still down this is still really hard so about a year now looking out I think
that there if somebody would arrive now everyone’s not talking about the type of
it every day except for the families that are still displaced yeah more of
our issues related to our economy are issues that we’ve always had and I think
that disaster just kind of exasperates that it’s we’ve always had a volatile
economy we’ve always had a hard time having a consistent to the market
specifically around some of our two biggest industries are China and Korea
and just with international relations happening right now there are a lot of
factors outside our control that are impacting our numbers and just there’s
also the general sentiment of you should come to paradise here despite the fact
that we’re still recovering and there’s a typhoon I mean you’re a very resilient
part of the world because they know it’s it’s it’s much more common in your
region to experience the typhoons and on you know becoming more regular and but I
I know there’s lots of things your community has done to become more
resilient to when it comes to your insurer so you know there’s a pro and a
con what is they specifically the tourism industry what was the impact
where their actual physical accommodation that was damaged four
areas your airport those kinds of things our airport was closed for the first
month so we had like an entire the economy wasn’t completely shut down
because the locals were still buying back locked for a few months especially
because the white students aren’t really consistently coming in and until January
February yeah because we had sustained major damages to our airport I had a
friend that works for airport rescue and they had them like repaving the strip
pretty much 24 hours he was very excited to do it because he was trying to get to
his fiancee in Russia for a full month that we couldn’t bring tourists in and
then the thing that a lot of so for instance the Korea they aired they came
and they brought a plane and specifically to get Korean nationals out
of here as if it was like war zone so that’s what had been flashing on all of
their screens we did lose one one hotel completely hasn’t reopened and they are
more in the south so most over to dam we we had damages across the island but it
was most significant in our southern power of Saipan and in Tinian at the
neighboring island which is all a part of our territory and so then there one
of the hotels was able to rebuild to two of them have been closed for a
significant amount of time and then were able to renovate and then one still
hasn’t reopened but that’s just as far as accommodations go as far as our
tourist numbers they I think started to bounce back
maybe by June 2019 to be more consistent with what had happened but that created
a log in our economy so our government went into austerity which then also
impacted the businesses because the locals were the first people who would
go and purchase goods so it was a vicious cycle but it is looking more
optimistic now as long as in our international relations hold up yeah
yeah so would you say that the majority I know you’re the executive director of
the Saipan Chamber of Commerce there are all right would you say the vast
majority of your members would be tourism-related or would be the other
types of businesses I would say about a third of them are directly tourism but
because we are a one industry economy everyone is related like tourism is
everyone’s business so even if they aren’t the hotel or if they’re not true
operator they are supplying goods or they are partnering or they provide the
copiers so everyone is somehow related to tourism you don’t have a secondary
industry which is something that we’ve talked about for years is diversify in
our economy in our neighboring area Guam they’re two major industries are the
military and and tourism so they have a more diversified economy and there has
been there’s going to be a military buildup on Tinian which is the island
that was pretty much completely flattened by Yutu so they’re building a
divert airfield there but overall it’s just very difficult to do business here
and I think that the issues that we’ve always had and we are isolated it is
hard to import and export government red tape everyone kind of acknowledges
those are the things that make it hard already to exist out here and so it’s
hard to stay in a business for a long period of time
so if you couple that with yeah we’re not sure we’re gonna get hit with cat
fives and the inability to access labor so that it has always also been another
one of our issues is we don’t have a consistent labor force most specifically
around construction workers so that it was very difficult for businesses to
rebuild and especially when they were competing with individual families and
so then it’s either the businesses rebuild or the families rebuild because
we don’t have anybody here anyways so FEMA has been active this typhoon
in helping with permanent housing construction certain permanent housing
or piers and they’ve also helped bring in volunteers from the states in so that
there is some labor that individual families can access so they don’t have
to compete with the businesses however I there are many businesses that still
just haven’t fully been able to rebuild or renovate or they don’t really want to
invest in their infrastructure until they know that we are going to have a
more stable economy yeah yeah so as far as say the tourism opportunities there
are if when you’re marketing the region to have people come in what are the
types of things that that you’re advertising is it scuba diving is it the
types of things that someone can do there so we have a Marianas Visitors
Authority they actually just did their annual membership meeting and they
talked about the individual markets and how they are marketing to China Korea
Taiwan Japan we’re trying to even diversify our pool of people we’re
expanding this used to be heavily a Japanese tourist destination especially
just the history after World War Two there were actually many families that
that spoke Japanese and had Japanese in their lineage and so it was just a very
organic fit at the time each culture is different um so for instance Chinese
visitors usually like to come they like to rent our pretty pink mustangs that it
is it is very interesting I forget that it’s not normal to see
highlighter pink blue yellow orange Mustangs going up the road like 25 in a
line almost like if you’re if you were imagining like the ATVs
whatever you take all the four wheelers out and you get a line and you go around
on a tour we do that here with buses so they like yeah so the Chinese like to to
to do that to shop and to purchase a lot Koreans like more activities so we do
have scuba diving we have really great diving in a lot of our select locations
they like to go on the ATVs they they like the beaches they like the
catamarans and going off the boats and the parasailing so it’s just a little
little different for each one that’s great so that does it but you should
talk to Marianas Visitors Authority they could talk all about tourism in general
so now that you’ve kind of been it’s over a year are you thinking you’re
pretty set for the upcoming tourist season now yeah I would assume that the
winter time would be a good time for you to get people from colder climates
looking for a little bit of paradise do you think people are ready to welcome
visitors right now or is it still a little bit too early no we’ve been I’d say that
we started welcoming visitors a year ago it was really in January 2019 that is
when we were fully open like please come back begging yeah we were begging people
to come back we’re safe it’s fine I actually think that there was there was
supposed to be a we’re safe campaign you know all the businesses are excited we
don’t we do have peaks in our tourism but we’re actually pretty consistent
throughout the year as compared to some other destinations and I know that
Hawaii and Guam experienced the same thing people just come on the budget
airlines whenever they can but you are correct that around Holy Week we do
have a that’s one of our busiest times in the
year okay okay well is there anything else you want to comment on before we
wrap up anything else that you want to promote or you want to make a comment
about no I just actually exhaustion so even I was polling my members of what
are the topics that are most interesting to them
looking forward it’s health care our labor issues local government issues and
then I put typhoon resiliency and mitigation and it was the lowest ranking
one I think which is surprising to me in some sense but I think that it kind of
shows that it is I think for businesses it’s hard enough to survive right you
now in our in our isolated small community and so it’s very hard to plan
for the future of okay this theoretical typhoon coming in five years when I
don’t know if I’m gonna be operating in two years because I don’t have labor
because I don’t know about if so we have something called the Chinese visa waiver
so that means that it is easy for Chinese residents to get into the
Commonwealth and it’s been threatened to be taken away for many years now and so
then as soon as that happens we lose 50% of our tourists so yeah that is always
at the back of people’s minds what is what are we going to look like as a
community in one to two years and so then if so why should I invest a
resiliency which is really sad to me because it’s it is so important that
mitigation work but it’s the reality of actually operating in these systems of
it’s nice to talk about mitigation that’s nice and talk about thinning but
unless businesses want to or are willing and are willing to take the steps we’re
just going to continue to to make small steps I would say that there’s still
mitigation work being done we’re still trying to bury our underground cables
we’re still applying for grants to make it so that our infrastructure is
stronger but / I don’t think that it is necessarily
in the forefront of businesses priorities to mitigate plan for future
disasters unfortunately but like I said I think people are exhausted – like from
a mental health perspective I mean it’s it’s exhausting and so to think about
stuff like that you just you go I just got to get you today and exactly yeah
but and they’re like it said be think after the first typhoon everyone is like
okay like okay I need to start thinking of Plan B’s and C’s and this is just
hard no I see that so so well thank you so much for taking
the time I’m going to in the video the link I’ll put some links to your
organization the Marianas Tourism Authority just so people who are
watching can learn a little bit more about your part of the world then and
hopefully they they get too intrigued enough by looking at the beautiful
photos that they want a little adventure and they’ll come visit you and help
support you contribute to our economy those like the others are important I
know especially for an economy like yours so so thank you so much Maxine for
your time and wishing you guys all best as you continue your recovery thank
you not so much Leann thank you for giving me the opportunity you

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