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Introduction to Saipan  


Where is Saipan?

Saipan, the administrative center of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), is about a hundred miles north of Guam in the Western Pacific. On your world map, imagine a line drawn due East from the Philippines and another drawn due South of Japan. The lines intersect in the vicinity of Saipan.

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What's it like on Saipan?

Saipan is a small (25 Kilometer by 10 Kilometer) island with about 65,000 inhabitants. The major 'industries' are government (!), tourism and garment manufacturing. Government is big because private sector jobs pay so little; most private sector workers are alien contract workers who are paid the minimum wage (about US$3.05 per hour) and who sometimes live in poor conditions. Most tourists are Japanese, although more and more are coming from other Asian countries, including Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan and even Russia. However, with the advent of the Asian economic crisis in late 1997, Korean visitors dropped to nearly zero. As of mid-2000 tourism seems to be recovering and the Koreans are back. Most businesses lament that tourists are spending much less than they did before the crisis.

The climate is tropical, with a rainy season from about May through November. The rest of the year is mostly dry, with strong trade winds. For current conditions check out the Weather Service's Marianas weather summary. Yahoo! also has the Saipan Forecast. Or Click the image at the left.

The island is quite lush throughout most of the year and some areas, including some dense rain forest, are very beautiful. It's still possible to find isolated, unoccupied beaches in the more remote areas. Sadly, commercial centers tend to be garish and ugly. Traffic is becoming a problem, as are drugs and drug-related crime.

There are two groups of indigenous people on the island. The Chamorros probably came a thousand or more years ago from islands to the West. They speak a language that is linguistically similar to Tagalog. The Carolinians came more recently (early 1800's) from islands in the Central Carolines (between Chuuk (Truk) and Yap), and speak a language similar to Trukese. As the islanders have suffered through repeated foreign occupation, much of their original culture is lost. In spite of that they maintain strong traditions, including daily use of the vernacular, great respect for elders and a love of traditional food, as modified by successive waves of 'visitors'. The local people are friendly and hospitable and enjoy interest in their culture shown by outsiders.

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Who lives on Saipan?

As of the 1995 census, about 60,000 people lived in the Northern Mariana Islands. Of these, there are about 17,000 indigenous Chamorros and about 3,000 indigenous Carolinians. There were also nearly 20,000 Filipinos, over 7,000 Chinese, 5,000 Miconesians, 2,000 Koreans and just over 2,000 'Americans' (US Citizens from North America). Many of the Filipinos and most of the other Asians are contract workers in the hospitality, construction and garment industries. There are also contract workers from other Asian nations including Thailand, Bangladesh, Japan, and Sri Lanka.

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Is it expensive to live on Saipan?

Food and housing are expensive, although with the growing population, things are getting better. There are two Macdonalds, Pizza Hut, Price/Costco, and plenty of other exciting shopping possibilities. Tourist oriented shopping and other activities are often expensive. US Federal employees who work here get a 25% cost of living allowance. However, because of the favorable tax situation and because of the casual life style, you can enjoy yourself on a limited income.

Here are some sample prices (US Dollars) as of March 2001:

  • Big Mac - $2.85
  • Dozen Eggs - $2.00
  • US Gallon of Gasoline - $2.18
  • Case (24 X 355ml cans) of Budweiser Beer - $20.00
  • Loaf of Whole Wheat Bread - $1.50
  • Litre of UHT (boxed) Milk - $1.35
  • Cheap studio apartment - $350/month
  • Average three bedroom house - $700/month

Note that the Asian economic crisis which began in 1997 is having a definite effect on Saipan's economy. Tourism is down and many busniesses have closed. This has resulted in a glut of office space, housing and used cars. The prices of all of these items is coming down. The prices on consumer items remains high.

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What about jobs on Saipan?

The local government frequently hires off-island teachers and health care professionals. They recruit in all the usual places. A few jobs are also available for college students and recent graduates as 'sports assistants' (?) at some of the local hotels. Otherwise, many professional and technical jobs are taken by alien contract workers who are willing to be paid wages that are much lower than US scale. The government has some recruitment pages you can get to from the Saipan DataCom Home page. Also, the Saipan International School is often in need of teachers.

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How about Internet Access on Saipan?

Saipan has several Internet Service Providers. Some of the providers are ITE, PCI and MTC.

For those just visiting Saipan, free PC use and Web access are available at the Joeten-Kiyu Public Library and at the restaurant Coffee Care.

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How do you get to Saipan?

There are plenty of flights, daily. Both Northwest and Continental Micronesia have flights from all over the US West Coast. United has a weekly flight. Saipan is also served by JAL (Page in Japanese), Asiana and others. For more information, see the Marianas Visitor's Bureau (MVB) page.

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Do I need a visa to visit Saipan?

Tourists who intend to stay 30 days or less do not need a visa, no matter what the country of origin. You may be asked to show an onward ticket and sufficient resources to stay your intended duration. It is also easy to obtain a short term business visa upon arrival, which may be extended. Tourist visas can also be extended for one 30 day period. US Citizens can come and go as they please.

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Are there cheap places to stay on Saipan?

Although most of the 'resort' hotels are still expensive, it is possible to find places in the under-US$40.00 range. It is also possible to get tour packages from Japan and other Asian countries that include air fare and hotel at reasonable rates. (60,000 Yen for air fare plus three or four nights room from Japan during low season.)

The choice of budget hotels would be the Saipan Ocean View (+(670) 234-8900, FAX 234-9428). It is centrally located in Garapan, and has nice rooms, some of which actually have an ocean view.

Another nice, moderately priced hotel is the Pacific Gardenia. It is right on the beach and has a good restaurant and great bar.

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Do I need a car on Saipan?

Although Saipan is not that big, you really need a car. Although some people manage without by using bicycles, this is not very practical during the rainy season, at night time or for long journeys. As a result of the Asian economic crisis, used cars are fairly cheap.

As of November 1998, Budget Car Rental at Saipan Airport was charging $34 per day (for a manual-transmission Toyota Tercel) if the car is booked directly with that office. [Budget Car Rental's e-mail address is, and its telephone number is (670) 234-3347.]

A correspondent from North America notes: "By the way, I think that the Pacific Gardenia may be a better choice for American tourists than the the Saipan Oceanview. The white sand beach in back of the Pacific Gardenia is what most of them expect in a tropical paradise, and the Pacific Gardenia's restaurant would probably be more to their liking than the (primarily) Asian restaurants of Garapan. I stayed at the Saipan Oceanview, and liked it. But that is probably because, in contrast to many Americans, I preferred the quasi-Japanese setting of Garapan to the quasi-Hawaiian setting of the Pacific Gardenia."

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What can you do on Saipan?

SCUBA diving is good. ABRACADABRA! AquaVentures has an excellent set of Web pages which include a map of Saipan with descriptions of the best dive sites and some excellent information on currently available equipment. Stingray Divers, run by Rick Northen is another local operation that caters to local divers.

Sadly, Saipan doesn't have much in the way of surf. Several breaks are rideable when storms bring Westerly swells.

There are many good beaches, including some very nice, uncrowded, isolated ones. There are a number of golf courses and tennis courts. The jungles are great for boonie-stomping, with plenty of World War Two relics still around. For the sharp-eyed, there are also a number of cultural artifacts (including potsherds, stone implements, cave art and 'latte stones' -- large monoliths that were probably used for building foundations) left by the ancient Chamorro people.

The island has an active night life, both for locals and visitors, with some melding between the two. There are fine restaurants, both in and out of the resort hotels. My favorites include:

Coffee Care Saipan, which recently moved to a new location, part way up Capitol Hill road, near Vestcor and Micronesian Brewers (just up the hill from Rudolpho's), is a great place to eat or enjoy some fine coffee.

Thai House, next to the Cabrera Center in Garapan.

Oleai Beach Club is a great 'sunset' bar and lunch spot on the beach in San Jose Village. Giovanni's at the Hyatt Hotel in Garapan offers the best Sunday Brunch in the Pacific for $26.00. Reservations are a must. The Hyatt also has a daily buffet lunch for $20.00

Saipan finally has a multiplex theater run by Wallace Theaters. We now get first run movies with Dolby Digital sound.

If you like to run, drink beer or both, there is an active chapter of the Hash House Harriers (a drinking club with a running problem) on Saipan. The Saipan Hash House Harriers meet every Saturday at the Bank of Guam building in Garapan at 3:30 PM in 'Winter', and 4:00 PM in 'Summer'. Join the Hash if you'd like to meet some folks from Saipan, see some of the lesser known areas of the island, and enjoy a bit of outrageous partying. The cost is US$6.00 per person for the run, all the beer, soda and junk food you can consume, and all the fun you can handle. The Guam Hash also has a home page.

For those with a different idea of 'fun', there are plenty of night clubs, strip joints, karaoke bars and massage parlors.

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How "Americanized" is Saipan?

The extent to which North American culture has influenced life on Saipan is quite amazing to some people. I suspect that this is largely a marketing triumph and reflects the fact that American media reaches Saipan in a big way: 50-channel cable TV, movies, American style radio, popular magazines, etc. Of course, the fact that people themselves move freely and frequently back and forth from Saipan to the States also results in a great amount of cultural transfer, on the surface anyway. American products fill the shops (SPAM and Budweiser are big sellers) and American styles are the rule.

Is Saipan part of the United States?

Good question, with many answers. Here are a few:
  Federal Income Taxes   No
  Social Security Taxes   Yes
  Federal Labor Law   Yes
  Federal Minimum Wage   No
  US Postal Service   Yes
  FedEx, Airborne, Etc.   No
  Telephone   Yes (effective 1 July 97)
  Currency   Yes

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What about crime on Saipan?

Crime statistics are available at the Government's Criminal Justice Planning Agency site. Fortunately, crime against persons is rare and Saipan is a pretty comfortable place to live.

As a tourist or a resident, you will be safe if you follow ordinary, common-sense precautions.

How are the schools on Saipan?

Sadly, the Commonwealth government doesn't spend much on Education. As a result, schools are poorly maintained and needed construction projects have fallen way behind. There is reported to be a shortage of good materials as well. However, there are a large number of talented and dedicated people working for the Public School System. As a result, the quality of education is highly variable.

There are a number of private schools, some parochial. Space is limited and the cost ranges from $200 to $350 a month.

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How is the health care system on Saipan?

The Government hospital, the Commonwealth Health Center, was a state-of-the-art facility when built over a decade ago. It has suffered from overcrowding and lack of maintenance. Waiting times can be very long. The staff, including physicians and nurses, seems to be dedicated and highly professional. There are a number of private clinics operating on Saipan.

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Can I bring my pet?

Pets are OK, with some caveats. Most yards are not fenced. There are packs of "boonie dogs" roaming all over the entire island. Other cultures sometimes don't look at pets with the same fondness as folks from North America. You will have to put your pet in quarantine for four months. Personally, I have not had great luck with dogs. All have either suddenly disappeared or died. There is a vet on Saipan.