Beyond tourism and defense
Updated: Mar 10
Against the backdrop of military buildup, Tinian is seeking to diversify local economy
By Bryan Manabat and Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Tinian— Last year, the Department of Defense and the Northern Mariana Islands government broke ground on two projects for the Tinian Divert Airfield, representing the first of several defense investments on the tiny island which has a magnified role in the U.S. defense strategy amid heightened tension in the region.
The projects, which include airfield development and a parking apron totaling nearly $162 million, are expected to be completed in October 2025.
“From now into the future, this airfield will enhance our ability to meet mission requirements, broaden our defense strategies, and expand our capabilities for training and operations,” Rear Adm. Benjamin Nicholson, commander of the Joint Region Marianas, said during the groundbreaking ceremony in February 2022. “Today is yet another bold step we take for the defense of this region.”
With a population of 4,000, Tinian is intended to provide a vital alternative operating location should Andersen Air Force Base on Guam be put out of action for any reason. There have been growing concerns over AAFB’s vulnerability, specifically to a Chinese missile barrage, during the opening stages of potential future conflict in the region.
(The Joint Region Marianas did not respond to our questions and request for an interview.)
The Pentagon is pumping up its might in the Indo-Pacific region in response to threats from the People's Liberation Army. The DOD also plans to set up a live-fire training range on Tinian, which has a land area of 39 square miles.
Although it does not get as much attention as its neighboring islands do, Tinian is among the sites of large U.S. military exercises, including the recently concluded Cope North 2023 that brought approximately 2,000 U.S. airmen, marines and sailors from the U.S., Japan and Australia.
Tinian has been part of the U.S. Pacific theater since WWII. A magnet for history buffs, Tinian was home to the first atomic bomb that was loaded aboard the B-29 Enola Gay on Aug. 6, 1945 and dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.
Tinian’s economy, which once thrived on sugar cane, has since been dependent on the military and tourism was once supported by the Tinian Casino Dynasty until it shut down in 2015. The latte stone site, known as the House of Taga, is one of the island’s tourist attractions.
But the municipal government is looking beyond tourism and the military buildup to grow its economy without compromising the island’s way of life.
"Our local economy is still trying to rebuild from the devastation of Super Typhoon Yutu and from the Covid-19 pandemic," Tinian Mayor Edwin P. Aldan said.
"However, we are still optimistic about the growth of our local economy and are looking for opportunities to diversify our economy. Tourism has always been the CNMI’s primary economic engine which has supported Tinian’s local government operations. We know that the tourism industry will take time to recover. Tinian is in a unique position given the Department of Defense’s expanding presence on Tinian," Aldan said.
Since the divert lease agreement was signed in 2016, Aldan said Tinian has seen new businesses open, creating job opportunities in the private sector and indicating a healthy sign for the local economy.
The mayor said the island’s leaders are also looking for ways to create investment opportunities through the CNMI’s qualifying certificate program to further diversify the local economy.
"We want to develop growth that is focused on long-term sustainability, does not require imported labor and does not impose an additional burden on our environment and natural resources," said Aldan.
Aldan acknowledged the military build-up on Tinian has created job opportunities for local residents and opportunities for entrepreneurs to open new businesses.
"In the last four years, we’ve seen new boutique hotels, restaurants, stores, a car dealership, a coffee shop and office spaces open up. These are tangible signs of economic growth. We continue to engage in dialogue with our partners at the DOD to strike a balance between their needs to train on Tinian without altering the way of life that we are accustomed to," Aldan said.
In the next four years, Aldan added, "I want to focus on green initiatives and creating investment opportunities on Tinian that do not rely on tourism."
"We have a very small population and finding enough workforce to meet the needs of the military construction projects is a challenge. We continue to encourage our residents to avail themselves of training and job opportunities in the private sector but given our population, that will always be a challenge. Skilled labor shortage is not just a Tinian problem, it’s a CNMI-wide challenge."
Among Tinian's biggest challenges is the need to import goods and supplies that are not locally available. Inflation exacerbates the situation. "These challenges all hamper economic development and growth," Aldan said.
“We want enough growth which supports a good quality of life for all our residents without compromising our peaceful way of life and unique identity as a tight-knit community," he added.
“We are used to seeing military personnel who are on the island for training. Although DOD activities will bring additional development and an increase in transient population, we are confident that we can work with DOD to manage that growth in a way that meets our national security requirements but does not compromise our way of life, our environment and our natural resources," Aldan said.
Following the collapse of the Imperial Pacific Casino on Saipan, the Bridge Investment Group is eyeing the revival of the casino industry on Tinian.
While acknowledging that the new venture will provide employment opportunities for Tinian residents, Aldan does not believe that the gaming business will be an economic salvation for Tinian. "The Tinian Dynasty days, where the casino was the primary source of local revenue, are long gone. We will continue to support the industry as much as we can but we also have to be realistic and acknowledge the challenges of the industry," he added.
Notwithstanding the Tinian Casino Gaming Control Commission’s slow action on its application for a casino license, Bridge Investment remains confident about its proposed casino-ferry project.
Bridge Investment is targeting the opening of its Tinian Diamond Suites this month, according to Clint Albert, who is currently managing the Tinian Diamond Hotel.
Albert will also manage the 40-unit Tinian Diamond Suites once it opens.
The Tinian Diamond Suites consists of two buildings, each has 20 units and 90 percent of the rooms are two-bedroom suites.
“That’s a lot of rooms for people who want to come to Tinian, people who come for work and need some sort of lodging. I noticed that there is a very big need for lodging here, but there are very minimal options in terms of where they can actually stay or rent rooms,” Albert said.
"We are trying to open by March, open the restaurant first before the casino but again there are no definite dates, as we still have to go through proper compliance in terms of opening the casino, as the restaurant will be in the casino.”
Albert said the new boutique hotel “is almost in completion with all the documentation and permitting, definitely by March we should be open," he added.
"We are very optimistic that more business will come to Tinian, we can cater to those businesses and tourists that are coming in. We feel like this year will be a good year in general." he said.
Local hiring is a top priority, Albert emphasized. According to Albert, they recently had a meeting with the Tinian local labor team to discuss the positions available for the new facility. "I've been non-stop interviewing for positions at the front desk, housekeeping, and for the restaurant side, bartenders, servers and cooks," he said.
"Tinian residents are lovely, they are nice, so easy to deal with, local hiring is one of our top priorities, and so far, we are still sticking to our goal of, if we find any local residents to hire, we go that route," Albert added.
Albert said the 18-unit Tinian Diamond Hotel has been catering to military personnel who come to Tinian for military exercises. “In the last two weeks, we had a big group that sought accommodations— 86 air force personnel stayed with us for a few weeks.”
Besides Tinian Diamond Hotel, Triple J's Tinian Western Lodge and Tinian Garden B&B offer accommodation to the island's visitors including military personnel.
With more military exercises anticipated for the rest of the year, hotels and restaurants on Tinian expect more businesses to come.