If anyone wants to know where all our Japanese tourists have gone I can reveal the obvious answer and waive the $200,000 MVA consulting fee: They are in Guam -- in droves. A convenience store at 11:30 pm on a Thursday night had a line twenty deep in booming Tumon.
That we're being taken to the woodshed by Guam isn't shocking news, but after a weekend there I am stunned by the contrasts between Guam and here. Guam has more and better restaurants, shopping and hotels, yet not near the beauty of the Marianas Islands. Guam scuba diving was slightly more exciting than sticking your face underwater in the bath tub, yet the dive boats were packed, and I had to call a friend to find a contact to help get me on a boat. That we're losing to this, and not just losing, but getting spanked with Chicago Cubs style abandon befuddles.
I talked to a lot of tourists, Guam residents and former Saipan folks and everyone without exception said Saipan is more beautiful. They happen to be right. The Brown Tree Snake has killed off their King Fischer birds and other birds apparently, though they do not have wild dogs all over. The downtown tourist district though has a life to it that sits in stark contrast to Garapan, which is typically emptier than the space between George W. Bush's ears. That ghost town feel in Garapan, like a lifeless night club, gives that unhappening vibe that doesn't draw repeat business or good memories.
There aren't all that many fish underwater in Guam, and the coral isn't very colorful. Several tourists told me they'd rather go to Saipan, but it is just too inconvenient to get there. I spoke with Japanese divers and they also noticed the absurd prices Saipan dive shops charge, upwards of fifty percent higher than Guam, and they are annoyed by that. When people from Japan, where a gumball purchase practically requires a loan shark or a mortgage broker, think things are expensive, you know you're probably pushing things too much.
In some regards, Guam is making the same mistake as us by putting the strip clubs and karaoke bars in the heart of its tourist district. Naked, writhing women have their place don't get me wrong, when I was single I had a strong recommendation on that place, but it's not in the tourist district where families congregate.
In visiting the Maharani, which is owned and staffed by the same people from the Taste of India in Garapan, the contrasts are even more amazing. The old Taste of India had delicious, exotic food with a very friendly staff at reasonable prices, and they were rewarded with virtually no business. In Guam it's packed every night.
Tom Kallingal is the owner of the Maharani, and after years in Saipan he now has a bustling business with his Indian restaurant. "Back in 89 things were good. The Japanese market gradually came down. Chinese and Koreans go to Chinese or Korean restaurants. Eighty percent of our customers were so called haoles. This island has more support from the community as a whole. We're full every night so far. I expect to see more when the military comes in."
Kallingal said federalization and the minimum wage were no issue for him, and in fact he said federalization is the answer to Saipan's troubles because he feels the current wages don't provide a living. "They won't like it, but federalization is the answer. People can't live on those wages and they will continue to leave." Kallingal didn't blame the CNMI government for his businesses problems, but noted they were not helpful, either. "The government did nothing to help us, but they didn't cause harm, either. The parking issue was a problem for us. The night clubs took over the clean businesses. It hurt us. The families hated to come. Saipan is so much more physically beautiful (than Guam) with its Flame Trees. I really like Saipan, but they are two different markets.”
Joji Cherian, one of the famously friendly waiters now in Guam, says his life has changed for the better because he's getting a lot more pay. He says he is not the only one doing better in Guam. "I really miss Saipan. We had time to talk to customers. We see a lot of people from Saipan, maybe 100, who live here now. Many others have visited us and I'm so happy to see them."
Pauly Vettiyadan, the second half of the dynamic duo from the Old Taste of India, has had similar experiences. "It was easy and sometimes boring. We had a big reputation. We had a lot of mainland customers, but not much else. Here they are more adventurous eaters and the whole community is supportive.”
There really is no reason for Guam to be eating our lunch the way they are right now. The first, second and third solution is going to revolve around more direct flights to these islands. This will lead to better shopping and better restaurants. We certainly have the raw materials to turn this place around as a tourist destination.