Rolling Out The Red Carpet For Russian Visitors To Guam

Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i


By Maureen N. Maratita

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Marianas Business Journal, May 7, 2012) – While the Russian visitor industry is a fledgling market for Guam, one business has developed a variety of tour offerings for the market and is already anticipating repeat business. The company sees the market possibly growing to as many 50,000 Russian visitors a year.

Rita Jackson, general manager and Ioulia Safer, sales and marketing manager, combined their skills to launch Russia Guam Tours.

Safer spent four years in sales and marketing at Pacific Islands Club Saipan and was with the hotel for seven years. Jackson has been a realtor with ChaneyBrooks Guam since 2000, and lived in Saipan before she and her husband moved to Guam.

Aside from a variety of managerial, business and tourism skills and a longtime friendship, Jackson and Safer possess a rare commodity in the region - the ability to speak Russian.

On Jan. 15, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security granted Guam visa parole authority, opening the door for the business to form. The Russia Guam Tours service is personalized, its executives said.

"The flights come in at night; the hotel provides transport," Jackson told the Journal. Russia Guam Tours meets with the visitors after breakfast on the first morning. "We check they are happy with their accommodation." Aside from briefing visitors, the company also ensures the tourists have everything from adaptors to Internet access to cell phones, and in one case provided emergency medical service in the middle of the night.

"Basically our goal is to make them comfortable from the first day ... to provide the best service," Safer said.

Russian visitors, while enjoying the beach, also tend to be outgoing.

"What they want to do is ... explore things, rent a car from Day 1 to the last day and see as much of the island as they can," Jackson said. "Most of the people enjoy mingling with local people," Safer said. Russian visitors have commented on the friendliness of the island's population.

Most of the visitors do not speak English. "That's why we think we are truly being very useful in helping them," Jackson said.

Safer said, "We have had about 50 families here in March and April; each of the families want to come back, because they had a great experience - that's 100% satisfaction."

Repeat business comes from satisfaction, Jackson said. "We think the first year, the guests who come to Guam and have a great experience will promote for us and Guam. It's very important these first tourists have a great experience."

The two are supported by Bartley A. Jackson, Rita's husband, who is a senior adviser to the business. He is also president of the Santa Fe Hotel and chairman of the Guam Hotel & Restaurant Association. An additional partner is Kloppenburg Enterprises Inc., which also provides transportation for the tours and other optional tours. A Russian-speaking employee works with the tour groups.

"From the day Russia Guam opened its doors, it became the most experienced tour operator in Guam. Between the group ... there's 80 years of Guam-Saipan hotel/agency experience. Between Ioulia and myself there's 20 years of working in the Russian market," Bartley Jackson said.

He was the first hotel general manager and Marianas Visitor Authority Board member to prospect business in Vladivostok in 1996, when he was PIC Saipan general manager, he said. "As a result of that, PIC became the most active hotel in the Russian market." PIC Guam and Saipan continue to be the most popular hotel destinations for the Russian market, he said.

Bartley Jackson said the Santa Fe is happy to have another market to draw from. "If Rita had decided to focus her efforts on only selling Santa Fe that would have been enough for us, but clearly the opportunity presented itself for us to strategically create a company that has real agency experience and that's where Ioulia comes in." He also complimented the experience and additional resources brought by Kloppenburg Enterprises.

Aside from its climate, the appeal of Guam to Russian tourists lies in its safety and the relative ease with which tourists can travel the island and interact with local people.

Russian visitors to Saipan, also entering under a visa waiver, have had a mixed five years, dropping from a high of almost 7,000 in fiscal 2008 (before rebounding) to more than 4,000 in fiscal 2010, which the Marianas Visitors Authority said "corresponded with the beginning of income-forced major cuts in promotional spending." (See chart)

Rita Jackson said the potential in Guam exists. "It can grow even more than Saipan," she said.

Guam Visitors Bureau figures show Russian visitors increased 1,127% in February over the previous year, which meant the small market had 135 visitors over 11 in February 2011. Bartley Jackson estimated potential growth could reach to between 30,000 and 50,000 Russians a year. "The challenge is going to be hotel rooms and air seats." At present, he said, air lift is not an issue. "There are still available seats."

As the market grows, Rita Jackson said it will be hard to find Russian-speaking staff, or import them. "It will be hard to get working permits for them. We'll just look locally."

Bartley Jackson said, "Most of the Russians that live on Guam will be called upon to be put into service for the industry. The lead tour guide for Russia Guam Tours is an older retired woman - a school principal, a history teacher who is looking to fill some hours in her week."

He foresees that hotels will set aside rooms for long-staying Russians. "The message we are trying to get out to the market is, 'The hotels will make room for you, if you book early enough.' Also, he said, an earlier Russian summer season will mean rooms will be available. "The challenge will be if and when a China visa waiver happens. The Russian market - it's family by family. The China market is going to be groups of 20, 30, 40, 50. ... Inventory is effectively flat."

The majority of tourists come from Khabarovsk, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Vladivostok in the Far East area of Russia.

From Vladivostok, the flight is under three hours to Seoul. Korean Air flies Russian visitors daily into Guam through Inchon International Airport and at this time of year has four additional weekly flights. Jin Air has a smaller one-class daytime flight on the route, with a less convenient connection. "What is great is we are almost in the same dateline. They are only one hour ahead, so they don't have jet lag, and they like that," Rita Jackson said.

"Korean Air has been very supportive and been eager to increase seats," Bartley Jackson said. "United has stepped up and is trying to promote its connections through Japan and Hong Kong." However, he said, "They are going to have to work on making the connections convenient."

Bartley Jackson was among the Guam delegation that visited Moscow from March 21 to 24 for the Moscow International Travel and Tourism Fair, and continued to Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. As GHRA chairman, he will accompany the GVB delegation to Vladivostok at the end of May for the Pacific International Tourism Expo from May 23 to May 28. Safer, who also went with the March delegation, said, "In Moscow a lot of people were asking about the visa waiver; they were so excited. Attendance in Khabarovsk and Vladivostok was more than we expected."

Bruce Bateman, marketing manager of MVA said the authority will not be sending a delegation. "Our travel partners have just returned from East Russia, so it is unlikely we will participate in May. We do plan additional road shows there this year, just not in May," he said.

At PIC Saipan, which has been in the Russian market the longest, Moscow guests make up about 5% of the room nights, Bartley Jackson said. "The reality is 90% of our business is going to come from the Far East."

Russian visitors to Saipan are also finding their way to Guam. "They go to Saipan first and make a side trip to Guam," Rita Jackson said.

Rita Jackson has already assisted Russian nationals interested in purchasing land in Guam, as they have done in Saipan. "They bought a piece of land to build a dream house." Russians, she said are interested in condominiums in Tumon. "They don't mind driving but they want to be where life is happening."

Bartley Jackson said Russians like Guam.

"They love the fact that they can be undisturbed. They can come to Guam and be safe and get a good consistent vacation experience and do what they want with minimum interference by locals. They are not bothered by people pushing them to buy." Saipan has the same strength, he said.

The business offers a variety of organized tours and other activities, including a historic tour, a cultural tour and a World War II-focused tour. Optional tours include diving, flying and visits to local attractions. Fishing is a popular option. Tourists venture around the island, and to restaurants and malls. "The positive impact of Russian visitors is going to be seen all around Guam," Bartley Jackson said.

Russia Guam Tours initially provided language lessons at a variety of businesses, but has since concentrated on tours and services. It does not provide translation services, but is also prepared to assist Guam hotels struggling to cross the language and cultural divide with ground handling, acting as go-between.

"Some hotels are more prepared than others," Bartley Jackson said. PIC, Hilton Guam Resort & Spa and Hyatt Regency Guam all have Russian visitors, he said. "But none of the hotels have 24-hour staff who speak Russian, and none of them have Russian speaking staff throughout the hotels," he said, requiring the ground handler to play go-between. "That's the role that the ground handlers play, and there are several now in Guam. ...When a guest comes to Russia Guam Tours and stays at PIC, for example, or Hilton, for example - when they have a problem with a room or need information, we try and solve those problems for them; we try and improve their experience." Hotels, he said "would be better off using a ground handler than booking direct business. If there's any problem, it's owned by the ground handler."

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