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Saipanpreneur profile: Ian Mayne

The only way to take control of your life, raise your standard of living and move beyond merely surviving is to create your own unique product or service that you offer to increasing numbers of people in exchange for the things of value that you desire. This simple formula applies to countries as well as people. A self-sufficient economy has its own products or services of value to export to the world. Similarly, a self-sufficient individual has something of value to exchange in the global marketplace. That thing of value is based on your natural talent, skill, or interest—in other words, your passion!

This week’s column offers highlights of an extensive interview and brainstorming session with a unique visitor to Saipan.

Ian Mayne, born in Texas, Australia, has been in the maritime industry since 1975, and is now the company director of Whales and Sails PTY, LTD, Marine Tourism company, which offers sailing, sea kayaking tours, whale watching, scuba diving, trekking, and more for the adventure traveler.

Ian pulled into Saipan’s Smiling Cove last week with his 9-year-old daughter, Shanai, and three crewmembers on the Antares—a 40-foot cabin cruiser—and immediately caught the attention of Captain Carl who suggested we meet.

What brings you to Saipan?

I’m taking a boat that I purchased in Japan back to Australia with my daughter and some volunteer crew members, making a holiday of it, as well as keeping my eyes and ears open for potential business opportunities.

Where else have you been?

We’ve passed by all the northern islands, Pagan and Maug… After this, we’ll visit Chuuk, a few more islands and atolls then on to Papua New Guinea, spending a week in each major destination, and then to Australia.

What got you into the tourism industry?

Girls, actually! I was studying to be a marine biologist at the University of Southern Queensland doing a course in biological laboratory techniques. My family used to go on holidays in Harvey Bay. I would see all these tourist boats with these cute chicks, and I said I want to be a part of that!

[Harvey Bay is the fastest growing tourism destination in Australia with the third highest visitor numbers in Queensland. The top three destinations in Australia are Brisbane, Cairns and Harvey Bay.]

What’s your impression of Saipan?

From what I’ve seen, Saipan definitely has the basic requirements needed to be a world-class tourist destination. With a little development and refinement, it could be best in the world.

The best, really? What are some of the things you notice?

It’s such a unique environment. There’s the proximity of the actual shore to the reef; the lagoon with its beautiful, clear, calm water; the number of days of sunlight; the historical significance and mystique associated with that history. Because of its unique location, it’s got a taste of the Orient, a taste of America, and the South Seas all thrown into the package. Also, it’s viewed as a “safe destination” which is important in today’s world. I could go on…

Please do.

Well, the welcome we’ve received here has been great. My crew members Flurina (from Switzerland), and Neta (from Israel) have all experienced that it’s the people here that makes Saipan such a magical place. The people we’ve met are fairly uncomplicated, what you see is what you get, very open, very friendly; the beaches are beautiful; it doesn’t have a large tidal range (vertical distance between high tide and low tide) which makes it a lot safer when people are snorkeling, since they’re less likely to be caught in currents.

What happened in Cairns in the mid-1990’s?

The tourism industry boom in Cairns (pronounced “cans”) started in mid-1980’s and got bigger and bigger, so huge that everybody thought there would be no end to the pot of gold. There was an endless supply of visitors not just from Australia but from overseas. The Japanese market was huge. I think there were even direct flights from Cairns to Saipan at that time. Then in the mid-1990s the Japanese stopped coming. Airlines stopped flying, things took a turn for the worse and ended up in a slump.

Sounds like you’re describing Saipan.

The similarities are striking. The government formed a committee to investigate why this was happening and they quickly discovered the reason: there was no formalized code of practice for the tour operators, tour desks and travel agents. People from different countries were being the sold the same product at different prices. Even people from the same country were sold the same product at different prices based on the mood of the tour/travel operator.

Why is that such a critical issue?

The average human being hates being discriminated against. To be charged a different price simply because of the color of your skin or your national or ethnic origin is one of the worst forms of discrimination there is. That’s what caused the downturn in the Cairns tourism industry. Japanese were being charged up to $100 more for exactly the same tour as someone from China, who was charged differently from an American or a Korean.

People talk. Word gets around. It’s a well-known fact in tourism circles that it takes 50 people going back home with a positive impression of their experience to counteract the negative experience of just one unhappy person. So, when travel agents from overseas have their clients return home unhappy with demands for refunds, those agents will lose confidence in that destination. They just stop sending people there. When the agents lose confidence, then the airlines lose confidence and pull out.

So what did Cairns do?

There was a regulatory body formed that the travel agents and tour operators all became members of, and a code of practices was developed and adhered to rigorously. Those who didn’t adhere were kicked out of the organization and eventually went out of business.

That regulatory body was established in 1997. By 2000, things were turned around. A lot of businesses closed their doors, never to return once they realized they would have to operate on a level playing field. In the short term, profits declined, but then as confidence increased, the volume made up for it. Eventually confidence was re-gained to the point where now Cairns has world-class status. By the way, even with a code of practices that requires consistent pricing, anyone with a local ID can still get a discount.

What else would you suggest?

The water sports here are great. Para-sailing over a coral reef is a unique experience that stays with you forever. The submarine you’ve got here is something unique, as well as Managaha island, scuba, snorkeling.

I would develop some additional activities for tourists like eco-tours, adventure tours, bungee jumping. Sea kayaking would be great to see here, as well as specialized fishing tours. You’ve got Trevally fish here, which, for the international sports fishing enthusiast, could generate much more value as a catch and release species, than it can for eating. [eg. casting for giant Trevally is a hugely popular sport where clients pay as much as $1,500 for a day’s experience.]

If we use Cairns as a model, what could we expect if such an overhaul were implemented here?

Ian: Things will seem worse in the short term. The few who survive will start back on the road to recovery slowly, but things will improve with volume. But the great thing is that I see Saipan having even better potential than Cairns, because of some of the reasons I stated before. Its proximity to the reef makes it an easier destination to sell. In Cairns, if you want to go to the reef it’s a full day trip 20 miles offshore. The outer reef is 30 miles offshore.

In Saipan you don’t even have to hop on a boat and get seasick to get to the reef. It’s shore-based. You hop off a bus, walk down a trail and you’re there. Very few destinations in the Asia-Pacific region can offer that!

With the right support of everyone at the table, and the participation of the tour providers, Saipan could be well on the road to recovery within three years.

Final words of wisdom?

You have a unique and beautiful resource here that needs to be protected as well as maximized, and it’s possible to do both. All it takes is the willingness to make changes, recognizing the needs of your neighbors, and realizing and that, as a vendor, you are not the only person trying to make a living.

Saipan has a lot of natural beauty and resources. However, that beauty is not an unlimited resource, and it cannot survive without active participation from user groups to ensure its continuity. We, as users, cannot just take, take and take. We must put back. In Australia, we have something called a "User Pays" concept, where a small monetary charge is levied on all tourists, and that money goes directly to the managing authority for a particular resource. So, coral reef tour guides would collect $4/person from each visitor to that resource, [sort of an Environmental Management Charge] and that’s passed on to a Reef Management Authority for that reef to help with education, preservation, and protection of that resource.

When visitors leave and go home, each one should be an ambassador for Saipan. Do everything you can so that visitors have nothing negative to take with them.

Every major tourist destination in the world has gone through what Saipan is going through now. Creating a consistent experience with a level playing field and a well-managed, enforced system is not just a good idea, it’s the only way that you can recover.

WHEN the turnaround happens, the people who are not inside that system will either change their ways or they won’t be able to survive. I already see a lot of strategies being put in place that are positioned improve the economy and the tourism industry.

When are you heading off island?

Friday morning, weather permitting. I couldn’t pass up the chance to see the Liberation Day/Fourth of July festivities.

Think we’ll ever see you again?.

I’d say most definitely. I’m very impressed with Saipan. My daughter likes it, and who knows, there may even be some business opportunities here for me...

[Note: Ian holds a 500-Ton Unlimited Master License, and is a PADI Dive Master.]

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Until next week, remember, success is a journey, not a destination!

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