BY BERNADETTE H. CARREON
NGERULMUD, Palau — In his State of the Republic Address on April 16, President Thomas E. Remengesau Jr. said the nation is trying to maintain a balance between the tourism surge while protecting the country’s fragile environment.
The president, who delivered his address for 69 minutes at the Senate Chamber at the Capitol Building in Melekeok State, identified critical issues and challenges of two vital aims of his administration: achieving high-value tourism and the implementation of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary.
“One year ago, I declared to you that after years of being stuck in the doldrums, after repairing our mast and our main sail, we were once again ready to catch fair winds and together chart a course toward a future of economic prosperity for everyone. We came together and directly addressed our immediate challenges,” the president stated.
He said the government has made changes since last year by paying all of Palau’s overdue bills, hiring additional nurses and health professionals, repairing facilities and equipment, improving water systems throughout Palau as well as the Koror sewer system, renovating schools and expanding power plants.
However, he said, the surge of tourism, which some might see as positive growth, has proven a challenge to the country.
“Today, we find ourselves faced with an unforeseen gust of wind from the east that is a bit too strong for our sails. To meet this squall, we must once again adjust our sails so that the wind does not overpower us and throw us off our course. We need to maintain a consistent heading and a steady speed forward toward our destination,” he said.
He stressed that tourism “is and will continue to be Palau’s primary revenue generator for both the people of Palau and for the government for years to come.”
However, the bulk of the tourism increase is comprised of low-value tourists, which runs counter to the aim of marketing Palau as a high-value tourism destination, he said. The low-value tourists have been arriving on charter flights from Hong Kong and Macau, he said, on vertically integrated package tours, in which the airfare, accommodations, dining, ground transportation and tour arrangements are all or partially paid off-shore.
“The end result is that a high percentage of revenues remain off-shore and thus the required taxes will be difficult to realize,” he said. “Likewise, most employees in these chains of businesses are foreigners, so most of the benefits go to foreign workers. Does this sound like a good deal to you?”
Palau’s tourism numbers have grown from 87,000 in 2007 to 108,037 in 2013 and 140,177 in 2014. Remengesau noted that in the last quarter of 2014, tourism numbers doubled over the same quarter the previous year. At the spiraling rate, he is projecting 180,000 tourists in 2015 and, with projected new hotel rooms, nearly 200,000 tourists in 2016.
In regards to the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, the president again urged the lawmakers to take action on the pending legislation that would make 80% of Palau’s EEZ a no-take fishing zone.
“My fellow Palauans,” he said, “overall, the key to our development efforts is to find balance — balance between the immediate and the long-term. Our decisions relating to tourism directly impact our environment. Our decisions relating to tourism and the environment directly impact our revenue stream. The creation of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary is an important part of our efforts to create this balance between our economic development objectives and our environment. Specifically, the sanctuary will protect our marine resources from unsustainable harvesting practices.”
The president added that the legislation has not only gained traction from international organizations and developed countries, such as Australia, Italy and the United States, but it has the support of the majority of Palauans.
“If we, as leaders, fail to listen to the wishes of our people, a referendum may then be the only way for them to ensure that their voices are heard. The sanctuary is Palau’s tradition, and the bul is Palau’s proven success story. Time is of the essence. We need to act now. We must not wait until there are no more fish. The bul is an action you take before you run out of fish,” the president said.
The president said the government is listening to its people that fish stocks are rapidly declining and there is a need to protect them from further depletion.
“Any fisherman you talk to will tell you that our in-shore and off-shore fish stocks have been rapidly declining for the past two decades. This is because our resources have been overfished by foreign interests who have only one consideration in mind: their financial bottom line. It is of little concern to them if tomorrow we do not have fish to feed our children,” the president said.
The president also urged members of Congress to not use tourism and sanctuary issues as a campaign tool; instead, he urged elected leaders to talk out their differences and not hold hostage important legislation and measure for political gains.
“Some things simply go beyond politics and are just the right thing to do,” he said. “[…] I welcome criticism — with options and concrete solutions. But please do not just sit idly by and do nothing because the proposal or bill came from us,” he said.