It’s an island paradise that’s perhaps better known from World War II books than the pages of a travel guide.
But the Pacific Ocean island of Saipan, a US territory just six hours from Brisbane, is seeking to position itself as the “new Bali” for travel-starved Australians.
And with the island set to achieve herd immunity from Covid-19 in weeks after a robust vaccination rollout, and hopes a new airline will create air links with Australia, it seems to be a promising contender.
Saipan, the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, is famous as the setting of a key US victory against Japan in 1944, but in recent years the US territory has found popularity among scuba divers and snorkellers, and its bars and restaurants filled with international tourists.
As it edges closer to having 80 per cent of its adult population fully vaccinated — a milestone it’s expected to achieve in weeks — Saipan is looking to reopen to visitors again and sees Australia as part of its post-pandemic recovery, The Australian reports.
The island’s governor has backed plans for a new airline, Marianas Pacific, to fly to Covid-safe destinations, including Australia.
Neil Hansford, an Australian aviation expert and chairman of Marianas Pacific, said the island was an obvious post-pandemic destination choice.
“No Australian health authority is going to allow travel to Bali any time soon, same with the Philippines. Australians are going to want to go somewhere that’s Covid-safe and Saipan ticks all the boxes,” Mr Hansford told The Australian.
“It’s the same distance (from Brisbane) as Bali, it has the same quality of hotels, the same sort of resorts, better diving, English is the main language and they’re in the same time zone as us.”
Mr Hansford said the island uses US currency but its accommodation rates were similar to Bali.
The weather was good — between 21C and 31C year-round — and the surf was safe for swimming and paddling.
“They don’t drink Australian wine yet – we’d like to change that. There’s American wine and beer and plenty of night-life but it’s a family place, not a cesspit,” he said.
Bali was meant to welcome back international tourists by the end of July but the plans have been delayed due to an outbreak of the Delta variant on the island and across Indonesia, which has the country facing its most devastating wave of the pandemic so far.
Bali alone reported 1365 new cases and 37 deaths on Friday, according to Al-Jazeera. The outlet reports that although about 70 per cent of Balinese people have had at least one dose of the vaccine, there are concerns about some 11,000 Western expats in Bali who aren’t vaccinated under the government rollout.
The Delta outbreak also threatens to bring even more economic turmoil on Bali, which has been eager to resume international tourism to revive its badly battered economy.
Bali may also risk losing its go-to status with Australian holiday-makers if it is not ready to reopen as quickly and safely as other affordable destinations when Australia’s travel restrictions ease.
Australian Federation of Travel Agents chairman Tom Manwaring told The Australian alternative destinations like Saipan were in with a shot while Bali faced a long battle against Covid-19.
“The impact of Covid in Bali will be a positive for destinations like that, providing the health amenities in Saipan are up to scratch,” he said.
“It’s a very competitive business, travel. If airfares are competitive and the frequency is good they’re in with a chance.”