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CNMI tourism's recovery overshadowed by manpower shortage

Garapan is the tourism district on Saipan. Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan

By Bryan Manabat

Saipan—The Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands or HANMI is seeing positive signs of momentum for tourism, the CNMI's main industry. But HANMI anticipates real challenges in maintaining the momentum because of a federally mandated mass exodus of workers.

HANMI stakeholders last week held a meeting and discussed significant challenges the tourism sector is facing such as the CW-1 “touchback” provision, manpower, facility renovations, a potential increase in the BGRT, essential air service, road improvement projects, and crimes against tourists.

The tourism sector’s stakeholders noted the good showing of tourist arrival numbers, and positive projections for the coming peak season months.

Ivan Quichocho, the association’s chair, noted that several foreign workers are leaving starting in September due to the touchback rule that requires employers to send CW-1 visa holders back to their home country every three years.

The CW-1 employee is then required to remain outside the U.S. for a minimum of 30 days. The processing of a renewal application could take months.

"We’re on skeletons crews. A lot of hotel properties have moved down to skeleton crews. Between a potential increase in taxation even if we still haven’t fully recovered, and shortage of key staff — these stack up,” Quichocho said

“It can be pretty devastating for the industry expecting tourists to come back and yet we don’t have the manpower. We don’t want to see a touchback," he added.


To augment the shortage of workers, the tourism sector is seeking to tap graduates from the Latte Training Academy, the Northern Marianas Technical Institute and the Northern Marianas College, who may want to get into the tourism industry.

Quichocho said the CNMI's exclusion from the Essential Air Service program is also another issue.

Previously, the CNMI was eligible to participate in the Essential Air Service program, but the Federal Aviation Authority Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 changed that. Amendments to the federal law around the definition of "eligible place" meant the CNMI was excluded from accessing the program.

Quichocho noted the Commonwealth Port Authority's efforts to secure funding from FAA for the airport to continue to operate Essential Air Services.

“One thing that you’re not hearing too much of is that if the airport doesn’t secure funding is that the fees, come September, are going to be crazy expensive," he said.


"That is going to get passed to the airline, which is going to do one of two things—either pass it to the customer or decide whether they can afford it or whether the consumer can carry that kind of a cost for this destination. So it really calls to question the viability of the route.”

HANMI is also dealing with issues of construction and access to construction - to develop CNMI as a destination, the need for renovations and improvement of facilities, and tourist sites, he said.

“Number 1 is the cost. No. 2 is access. No. 3 is our manpower. Then you have the looming potential for increased cost through taxation, and then access to tourists—if CPA is going to be able to get the funding support from FAA or not. What is that going to mean for the airlines? What does it mean for ticket prices or operating costs for the airline to come to Saipan? So just those items alone are pretty heavy.”

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But Quichocho is confident these challenges are surmountable.

"There are a lot of smart people on this island. If we can get together and kind of divvy up the target approach, all of this stuff can be overcome. It can be. We just got to get focused," he said.

Marianas Visitors Authority is projecting a total of 200,000 arrivals this year.

As of June, total arrivals so far were recorded at 125,957. MVA expects about 65,000 more for July and August.

In fiscal year 2019, right before the Covid 19 pandemic, the CNMI welcomed 424,838 visitors. The number then dropped to 215,125 in 2020 and in 2021 dipped to a staggering 5,000.

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