Saturday, September 24, 2022

[SAIPAN] The Design Is Very Guam

Unincorporated Territories of ‘MERICA! There are a handful of them islands and I’ve only been to four so far, all of them vestiges of colonialism: two in the Caribbean; another pair in the Pacific. Of the four, only the US Virgin Islands (former Danish West Indies) is not a by-product of the Spanish-American War, having been sold by Denmark to the US two decades later. Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, our close neighbors in the Philippine Sea, changed hands from Spanish to American the same time we and Puerto Rico did. And then we became independent. The three of them never did.

In my eyes, Guam and Saipan feel like extensions of one another. It must be the same Chamorro native tongue as well as the common socio-political history rife with colonialization they both went through. Even the common tourist attractions are of the same theme. Come to think of it, Pacific Islander traditions aside, it is that same colonial period -- from the arrival of the Spaniards right until the Japanese occupation during WWII before the Philippines diverged paths – that all three island nations share.

Guam remains my prohibitive favorite but this has more to do with personal bias than anything else. Bigger. More accessible. Saipan, the main island of the Northern Marianas, is just a mere 40-minute plane ride from Guam, but monopolized fares by United makes the trip rather expensive. Saipan could have been an easy side trip for me when I settled on Guam for six weeks last year to get vaccinated, if only they didn’t have way stricter quarantine requirements. As such, I had to wait for the pandemic and travel restrictions to die down.

It seems to be common knowledge in the tourism industry that Guam is popular to Japanese tourists; Saipan, to South Koreans. Pre-pandemic, at least. This must explain the air connections and might be of consideration to you if ever you want to do either island chain in tandem with either Japan or South Korea. Between Guam and Saipan, only the former has direct connections with Manila via United and Philippine Airlines. Coming from the Philippines, your only options for Saipan are one-stop flights via Guam or East Asia.

What to see in Saipan, then? The usual suspects. Beach. Snorkeling/Diving sites. Cliffs where the losing Imperial Japanese soldiers committed suicide. These are what you are bound to find when you try to look for half-day and full-day tours from Garapan, which is considered to be Saipan’s main town. Garapan is pretty much Saipan’s answer to Guam’s Tumon/Tamuning combo. There you will find the big hotels, the obligatory DFS shopping mall, as well as several fast-food chains here and there.

As for tourist attendance, this I can’t really attest to because I’ve only ever visited Guam and Saipan during a pandemic. COVID was just emerging when I visited Guam for the first time in February 2020. The pandemic is almost over in the Pacific, but the effects are still widely felt in Saipan. The streets are almost empty. What I imagined to be a lively Paseo de Marianas in front of Crowne and the Hyatt are now lined with empty and abandoned restaurants. Despite landing in Saipan with two planes full of Koreans from Seoul, I barely saw any tourist walking along downtown’s main arteries.Perhaps, they were all busy snorkelling?

And that, I guess, is the downside of towns and cities that rely heavily on tourism. Who would’ve guessed that tourists would summarily disappear in a three-year slump during our lifetime, right? In any case, for people like me who just want to find some random beach along the coast, Saipan is worth the trip. There’s just a gorgeous beach with white sand in every beachside backyard in Garapan! While I didn’t bother to check out the tourist attractions anymore, this trip served its purpose: one, for some quality beach time; two, to cross-out Saipan from my UN+ world map. That was #91!

[SAIPAN] The Design Is Very Guam

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