By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Despite China’s move to lift the ban on group tours to the Northern Marianas, the commonwealth’s previously largest market has remained rather slack.
According to the Marianas Visitors Authority, Chinese tourists accounted for only 2 percent of the total number of arrivals in November.
The MVA, however, has not expressed any inclination to drum up the China market, which is becoming a contentious segment of the CNMI’s stagnant tourism industry.
Instead, the MVA is bent on looking elsewhere to fill the void.
The dismal recovery of the China market, according to the MVA, underscored “the need to further expand the Marianas’ source market mix to increase arrival numbers and revenue generation.”
Before the pandemic brought the global tourism industry to a halt, Chinese visitors were the CNMI tourism industry’s bread and butter, accounting for
more than 50 percent of the commonwealth’s tourism base. The CNMI-only visa waiver program allows tourists from China to visit the commonwealth for 14 days without a U.S. visa.
In 2019, arrivals from China totaled more than 180,000. In 2020, it dropped to 18,550, and below 200 in 2021 and 2022 resulting from China’s suspension of its approved destination status agreements with Chinese tourists’ destinations.
In August, the China National Tourism Administration reinstated the approved destination status agreements with some countries, including the United States, a policy decision that extends to the CNMI.
However, due to security concerns and heightened geopolitical tensions triggered by China’s growing threats, CNMI Gov. Arnold Palacios announced earlier this year that his administration would "pivot away” from reliance on the China market.
Earlier this month, U.S. lawmakers asked the Department of Homeland Security to cancel the visa waivers for Chinese tourists coming to the CNMI, saying the program has opened the floodgates for all sorts of problems in the commonwealth, including drug trafficking, illegal immigration, organized crime and, possibly, espionage.
Local and federal authorities have beefed up efforts to crack down on drug trafficking in the CNMI, which involved Chinese citizens on Saipan.
The CNMI’s business sector, however, has appealed for reconsideration, citing “the significant impact of the Chinese tourism market on the CNMI economy.”
In a joint letter to Palacios and other CNMI officials, the Saipan Chamber of Commerce and the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands recommended “a balanced approach that ensures border security while supporting economic recovery.”
In the letter dated Dec. 13, the business organizations proposed the implementation of the CNMI Economic Vitality & Security Travel Authorization Program, or EVS-TAP.
“This program, designed following 902 consultations in 2019, aims to enhance security measures while ensuring the orderly entry of (Chinese) nationals for tourism purposes,” the chamber and the hotel group said in a press release.
"The EVS-TAP was designed by the federal government to address security concerns and the orderly entry of tourists, including those from (China),” said Joe Guerrero, president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce board. “We hope that once this is implemented, which we hope would be implemented very soon, the federal partners see the urgency and it would be most ideal to implement the EVS-Tap at the same time the discretionary parole ends."
The proposed EVS-TAP program involves electronic screening, a maximum 14-day stay, and exploration of additional security measures for Chinese nationals.
The SCC and HANMI urged the federal government to consider their proposed solution, emphasizing "the unique economic challenges faced by the CNMI and the potential adverse effects of restrictive federal policies on tourism-dependent economies."