GARAPAN Saipan — Since attracting fresh investments to diversify the economy has been difficult the Northern Mariana Islands may have no other option but to reinvigorate its visitor industry by developing potential niche markets like sports tourism the education sector and Japan’s silver mania.

Lynn A. Knight general manager of the Century Hotel and president of the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands; told the Journal “People have been talking about diversifying the CNMI economy for years and there has been sincere effort to reach out to new investors and find opportunities. This is not something that is easy to do from a remote island location.”

Saipan the biggest and most populated of NMI’s 13 islands is a 46-square-mile piece of land that is some 6 000 miles of ocean away from the U.S. west coast accessible only by a minimum of 13 hours of air travel excluding six to 12 hours of stopovers according to Juan “Pan” T. Guerrero president of Marianas International Travel Agency and Herman’s Bakery and president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce. As a result the local economy has been comprised almost exclusively of Asian-sourced tourism and garment manufacturing over the past 29 years he said citing a 2006 General Accountability Office report.

There were 10 investors engaged in various line industries — such as finance mining casino and entertainment fisheries air transport and education — that had signified interest in doing business in the NMI and started negotiations with Gov. Benigno R. Fitial during the first few months of his term. (See “Ben’s ten; investors line up for NMI opportunities” in the Feb. 6 2006 edition of the Journal.) To date the administration has not made any official announcement on whether any of these investors have actually opened a business on the islands.

Knight said the NMI could capitalize on its pristine environment and its ability to implement its own immigration laws to revitalize tourism. “[The NMI] is still one of the most beautiful cleanest and safest places to live. I think there’s more potential in sports tourism the education industry and the silver market for this reason ” she said.

Over the years the NMI has held annual international sporting events including triathlons windsurfing tourneys kayak races and beach volleyball matches among others.

The local government has also prioritized the enactment of a law that would allow retirees from Japan to live in the NMI. According to Marianas Visitors Authority Japan’s silver market is “continuously growing in number as more and more people retire and look for destinations to enjoy the twilight of their years.”

MVA also said some of these retirees “maintain a certain level of sentimentality with the NMI’s historical ties to Japan.” Japan took control of the Northern Marianas with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and administered the islands until 1944 when the U.S. seized the islands.

The NMI has created an accountancy board tasked to oversee the creation of a testing center that would facilitate review and examination of accountants seeking U.S. certification. In May last year representatives from the National Association of State Board of Accountancy were on Saipan to find a suitable site for the testing center. (See “NMI counting on national accountancy body to set up in Saipan for 2007 exams” in the May 15 2006 edition of the Journal.)

“There’s a lot we can do to develop our infrastructure in these areas and then if we can match our immigration advantages with the right communications to these niche markets it could be quite significant ” Knight said.

The NMI has come up with a five-year tourism master plan that aims to bring in one million visitors by 2010. Knight said the five-year plan is a roadmap for how to re-invigorate NMI’s tourism industry.

“Among other things the plan also builds a strong case for diversification of our core tourism markets and this is a competitive advantage we feel is very important to maintain and grow as a mature tourist destination ” she said.

HANMI was among local business groups that testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources during a hearing on Feb. 8 in Washington D.C.

The hearing was one of Congress’ efforts to gather data and federalize NMI’s labor and immigration laws.

A copy of the HANMI testimony obtained from Knight painted a gloomy picture of the NMI tourism industry’s continuing decline — from having 728 621 visitors during its peak in 1997 to approximately 443 812 tourists in fiscal 2006.

It stated that the organization supports continued local control over labor and immigration laws because the NMI economy is “currently experiencing tremendous challenges which will take years to overcome under the best of circumstances ” while faced with an indigenous population “too small to run essential government services … and then still have enough people available to provide adequate workforce for the private sector.”

The testimony also noted that a federal takeover of the NMI’s immigration laws could jeopardize local efforts to tap into the China and Russian tourism market.

HANMI represents 3 018 of the 3 394 total hotel rooms on Saipan where all its members are located; and as of Dec. 31 employed a total of 2 022 people of which 31% were local residents.

Hotel occupancy in calendar year 2006 averaged 63.57% which is 9% lower than that of 2005.

The U.S. Congress has long been moving to put NMI’s labor and immigration laws at par with federal standards. This could mean increasing the $3.05 local hourly minimum wage — which has remained unchanged for the past 10 years — to over $5. In addition visitors to the islands could be required to obtain visas. These efforts which began in 1992 have largely resulted over concerns in the U.S. about rampant abuse of guest workers in the NMI. MBJ