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Island #11: Northern Marianas (Saipan and Tinian)

The Northern Marianas feel very much Asian, are part of the Oceanian continent, and are associated with the United States of America. This results in a unique mix of three continents, a borderland without borders. I have hardly ever been to such a strange place.
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
Capital: Capitol Hill in Saipan Municipality
Inhabitants: 55.144
Area: 477 km2
Inhabited islands: 3
Languages: English, Chamorro, Carolinian (official languages), Chinese and Korean are very prevalent.
Around the island: 29 km from South (Obyan Beach) to North (Banzai Cliffs), no road goes around the whole island.



The Passport Party

Sadly, the Northern Marianas lost control over immigration to the United States in 2009. Sadly for me, because when entering the Northern Marianas from the US territory of Guam, I got no passport stamp. Sadly for the Marianas, because they cannot decide anymore on whom to issue a visa. As a consequence, there is now a serious lack of workforce, which traditionally came from Asia, mainly the Philippines. And sadly for the 30 border guards of the Northern Marianas, who all lost their job.

Still I had to fill out an entry form, and there was a cursory customs check upon arrival. More surprisingly, the US border control did check all passports when I left the Northern Marianas again for Guam. They even issued departure stamps – however, only on the boarding passes.

IMG_20190927_061229.jpgSaipan International Airport

What makes the Northern Marianas unique

  • They have a unique status in international law, based on contract with the United States established in 1975 known as “covenant”. The Northern Marianas are a commonwealth in association with the United States, which have a say in matters such as defence or immigration. The Mariana Islanders are not happy about this, but they still keep much more sovereignty than their neighbours in Guam, which is essentially a U.S. colony.
  • Garapan, the main town, has a pedestrian zone – the only one I ever saw in Oceania. The “Paseo de las Marianas” in the heart of Garapan’s tourist industry is, however, no success story. It looks dead at all times of the day and passers-by are likely to be suggested a massage for 20 or 30 USD by one of the young Asian ladies walking up and down.
  • Pacific Islanders are generally very relaxed, friendly and easy-going. Never ever would they harass a visitor. Not so in Saipan: Offensive touts try to lure tourists into massage parlors, shops and restaurants. Coming from poorer parts of Micronesia, I was absolutely not used to such a behaviour and responded way too friendly in the beginning.
  • The Northern Marianas are a gambling destination, and probably the only one in Oceania. Most impressive is the “Best Sunshine Casino”, which occupies a third of downtown Garapan and is truly unrivalled in terms of über-kitschy bad taste – awful and awesome at the same time. Tinian used to have a similar jewel, “Tinian Dynasty”, but now it is just another ruin, guarded by very angry dogs. No urban exploring there, even though it looks very tempting.

GOPR1284.JPGPaseo de las Maritimas: Garapan’s unpopular pedestrian street

My best experience

…was discovering the North of Tinian island totally alone. Tinian is a sizeable island with just about 3.000 inhabitants, all of which live in the main settlement of San José. The North was once the world’s biggest military airbase. Today, it consists of a maze of runways and of ruins, all slowly being reclaimed by the jungle. I rented a bike and had the whole place to myself – an impressive combination of great nature and abandoned places. I found a monument commemorating the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The planes which had dropped these bombs had left from here! I had not been aware of that and was amazed to find such a historically significant spot totally deserted and with no tourists at all.


My worst experience

…was arriving to Saipan. I had spent some great days in Tinian, taken another spectacular flight over to Saipan – where things started rougher. My airport transfer did not show up and there was no public transport neither, so only after a calling at the hotel, the transfer eventually materialized. There had been no reason to hurry, though: Garapan was rainy and sleepy. Despite being the tourism capital of the region, everything looked run-down, closed – and trashy, most particularly the giant kitschy “Best Sunshine Casino”, which is visible all over Garapan. Eventually I learnt to appreciate the place, but the first impression was truly depressing.


National symbols

IMG_20190927_050359-an.jpgImmigration/customs form of the CNMI

P1070598.JPGThe senate of the CNMI has only 9 seats – three for each inhabited island.

P1070377.JPGCNMI car plate. “Håfa Adai” is a common greeting in Chamorro language, which is even used by English speakers.

Did you know that…

…in Carolinian language, the main island of Saipan is called Seipel? In my opinion, this name fits the place much better.

…”Northern Marianas” is actually a misleading name. The three inhabited islands are all located in the southern part of the Marianas chain. But there is only one “Southern Mariana”: The U.S. territory of Guam. The actual northern part of the Marianas indeed belongs to the Northern Marianas, but nobody lives there anymore.


…there is no public transport whatsoever in the Northern Marianas? A recent attempt to introduce a modest bus system has failed. But DF Galleria, a mall in Garapan, provides an hourly free shuttle service to a couple resorts, which can be used to reach places such as Susupe or San Roque.

…all beaches are public ground? Most beaches are hidden behind resorts, but you are allowed to use them and they are never fenced off. You are not allowed to use the resorts’ infrastructure such as showers, but most resorts will happily let you use their bars and restaurants and are generally rather relaxed about outsiders. Or maybe it is simply not too hard to pretend to be a tourist who belongs there…

P1070299.JPGTachogna Beach near San José, Tinian

Practical Information:
International transport: Several planes per day link Saipan with South Korea (Seoul and Busan), China, Hongkong, and Guam. A daily flight to Japan is about to be reintroduced.
Inland transport: No public transport, see above. Star Marianas Airline links the three inhabited islands, with a hourly connection between Saipan and Tinian. Actually the planes simply leave when full, and you can probably turn up without any reservation and pay on the spot. These planes have only six seats – five passengers and one pilot, and yes: One passenger always sits on the co-pilot’s seat.
Accommodation: There is plenty of options for all budgets in Saipan, mostly in or around Garapan. Tinian currently has only three hotels, which are rather small, so book in advance. I stayed at Lorilynn’s, run by a very friendly Chinese couple; the place has the most central location of all three.
Food: Of all places I have been in Oceania, Saipan had the best food. No Oceanian food, unfortunately. But there are so many Asians catering for fellow Asians; as well as Americans catering also mostly for Asians, that there are really good Korean, Japanese, Chinese and American restaurants. Tinian is more modest: Only one restaurant was open during my visit, JC Café, a diner-style place.
IMG_20191001_131832.jpgVolcano Ramen at Ajisen Ramen, Garapan.
Money: The CNMI uses the US Dollar. Credit card payment is less prevalent than in the U.S. Tipping is very inconsistent: Some places charge a 10% service charge, which may or may not cover the tip. Others expect tips on a U.S. scale and others again don’t expect tips, because they are by Asians and for Asians. It is confusing and you are unlikely to do it right.
Communication: Most international SIM cards work in the Northern Marianas. Free Wifi is available in almost all hotels and restaurants.


6 Kommentare

  1. Daniel Passport is back! Thanks for the post and facts of a place that hardly features in any travel blog.

    Are you planning to write something on Guam as well? I’d be curious how similar or different it is to the Northern Marianas.



    1. Hi Henning, sorry for the late reply, I was busy relocationg to another border/island area (Cyprus). The Guam entry is coming soon. But to be honest, it is clearly not the most exciting place in Micronesia. Maybe I will write about Kiribati as well – much more interesting!


      1. Awesome, thanks! Yeah I read a few reports about Kiribati (South Tarawa) and a book of a Dutch-American couple living there for a year, pretty rough place. Would be great to hear your view about it!


  2. In the late 1990s Saipan had 80,000 garment industry sweatshop workers from China — who’d been fooled into believing they were coming to AMERICA for a great opportunity. They lived in abusive conditions. There were many protests and lawsuits and the industry was shut down. And the population returned to majority locals.


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