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By Liberty Dones

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 3) - For the first time, a direct chartered flight from Russia landed on Saipan yesterday, bringing in 130 tourists, many of whom are families and couples.

"We are very, very excited about this Russia charter flight. I hope this is the beginning of more charter flights. Russia is one of the five key markets that we identified in our five-year plan," said MVA chair Jerry Tan yesterday.

Originating from Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East, the Russian tourists arrived yesterday on Saipan at past 1pm via Dal Avia airline.

Marianas Visitors Authority marketing director Wayne Pangelinan, who led the welcoming delegation at the airport, said that most of the visitors are staying on Saipan for 14 days.

"There's so much potential in this market. When they travel, they stay longer [than other groups]," said Pangelinan.

Kwang Joong Kim, Asiana Airlines general manager on Saipan, joined in welcoming the tourists.

"This is good for everyone. It's good for tourism so we support this. The more people we have here, the better," said Kim.

The visitors are staying in different hotels on Saipan, including Pacific Islands Club, Aqua Resort Club, Hyatt Regency Saipan, Fiesta Resort & Spa, World Resort, Gold Beach Hotel, and Aquarius Beach Tower.

Most of these hotels each have an assigned Russian-born or Russian speaking personnel to handle the market.

The visiting Russians are set to fly back home on January 19.

Upon arrival, adult visitors were given shell necklaces each while the children received a Saipanda backpack.

A Saipanda mascot was also at the arrival area to greet the visitors. A cultural dance group made a presentation for the visitors.

Tan credited the success of the charter flight to the work of the Russian ad-hoc committee under the five-year tourism strategic plan.

"They've been working hard to develop the strategy and really to develop the Russian market. This is the result of that effort. MVA is committed to continue developing this market so we can't only achieve but also exceed the target that we set up in the five-year plan," he said.

In a recent tourism meeting, Russian market ad-hoc committee presenter Elly Stoilova said that Northern Marianas is unheard of by many Russians.

She said the top two challenges in marketing the CNMI in Russia is "the lack of destination recognition and the lack of direct of flights."

"They don't have a clue as to where we are," Stoilova had said.

The ad-hoc committee said the CNMI need to work with other Russian airlines on potential charter flights for 2007 holiday seasons.

Under the plan, the CNMI government aims to bring in 10,000 tourists from Russia in 2010. In 2006, Russian arrivals totaled over 1,500.

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