Business sector gearing up for the holiday with cautious optimism
Saipan— In January, an article published in the health-centric website realclearhealth.com cited the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands as "a case study in how to respond effectively to a crisis.” At the time, the CNMI’s coronavirus graph had a flatline. The local community managed to contain the Covid-19 transmission despite the CNMI’s close proximity to Guam, then the hottest zone in the region.
“This territory of the United States handled the crisis far better than the majority of the 50 states and the results have been excellent,” reads the article written by Bob Hauter. The author attributed the CNMI’s success to “the appropriate balance between action and restraint that has left this island economically viable and with minimal infections over the course of the past year.”
The CNMI’s miraculous months, however, ended on Oct. 28 when a school cluster was detected following the emergence of the highly transmissible delta variant. The succeeding weeks reversed the CNMI’s short-lived victory in the fight against the coronavirus as the number of positive cases soared.
As of this week, the CNMI had nearly 2,000 Covid-19 cases since March 28, 2020. The total Covid count accounts for 3.3 percent of the commonwealth's population of 57,000.
Despite the new wave of infections, government and business leaders remain calm and cautiously optimistic.
The CNMI reopened its borders to returning residents and citizens from the U.S. mainland after nearly two years of restricting incoming passengers due to the Covid pandemic.
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In July, the CNMI partially opened for Korean tourists who were covered by the Tourism Resumption Investment Plan, or TRIP. Now, with President Joe Biden’s directive issued in October that lifts U.S. and territorial travel restrictions for fully vaccinated foreigners from 33 countries, the CNMI is bound to fill this mandate and still work to keep the community safe.
At last month’s Safe Travel Summit, the CNMI Covid-19 Task Force announced the lifting of the quarantine requirement for vaccinated travelers “with proof of a fully vaccinated household.” Otherwise, these vaccinated travelers of a household that is not verified to be fully vaccinated would have to quarantine at a designated quarantine site for five days. Unvaccinated travelers would have to quarantine at a designated site for seven days. These safety protocols took effect Nov. 19.
According to Joe Guerrero, Saipan Chamber of Commerce president, the business community expects income-generating activity to pick up significantly this month. “This is due to the holiday spending, but tourism will likely see a dramatic increase starting in January and continuing through March, Guerrero said. “The business community is excited, but cautiously optimistic, as quarantine and travel restrictions are also affected by the foreign country's policy with regard to returning residents.”
Guerrero expects 2022 to be much better than 2020 and 2021, as the CNMI reopens its economy and welcomes tourists back. “Additionally, the American Rescue Plan Act spending will be in full swing in 2022 and into 2023,” he added.
Notwithstanding the optimism, many business owners opt to take things slow. “Some businesses are prepared, but some are not, and those that are not will likely take time to rehire/retrain staff, recruit and train new staff to replace those who took jobs with other companies or left the island,” Guerrero also said.
There are ongoing discussions between Japan and the CNMI to arrange a travel bubble. Administration officials are confident the CNMI is ready for tourists. Gov. Ralph Torres believes the CNMI has adequate health and safety protocols as well as dedicated resources for first responders.
Are the CNMI’s borders ready for a possible influx of tourists? Local airports and seaports have been disabled since Supertyphoon Yutu hit the islands. Barely had they recovered when the pandemic landed on their shores.
But there is no time wait, according to Kimber King-Hinds, chair of Commonwealth Ports Authority’s board of directors. “It’s very simple: no flights, no revenue,” she said. “Fortunately, the CARES Act, CRSA and ARPA have allowed us to stay afloat operationally. My hope is that the Infrastructure Bill will allow us to upgrade our facility so that we are able to welcome more flights and promote the CNMI as a world-class destination.”
King-Hinds said the CPA's ability to upgrade and improve its infrastructure at all of its six ports has always been largely dependent on funding from the Federal Aviation Authority and other federal partners.
According to Rep. Gregorio Sablan, the bill appropriates $30 million to increase airport safety on Saipan, Tinian and Rota.
“We are going to reserve comment on the amount and the purpose of what has been earmarked for CPA until we get an official notice from the FAA HQ,” Hinds said. “That's just our protocol. CPA did submit a list of priority infrastructure projects, which was included as part of the governor's submission to our federal partners.”
King-Hinds noted that a significant amount of money is being allocated to improve runways, gates and taxiways, aging terminals and air traffic control towers. “Our priority list for the airport is consistent with the focus of what is in the Infrastructure Bill, and we hope that this new law provides us with the support and funding stream that we need to make critical improvements. Airport security could include anything from TSA, airport police, or facility-related infrastructure, such as perimeter fencing,” she said.
“There is also a significant amount of funding for seaports in the Infrastructure Bill that has been allocated to the Maritime Administration or MARAD for operations and training and port infrastructure development, and we are waiting to get additional information to see how we can avail of some of these funds to improve our ports now that we have gotten our MARAD designation,” King-Hinds said.
Preparing to welcome tourists requires CPA’s collaboration with MVA and other industry partners, King-Hinds said. “We have to figure out what our room capacity is given the fact that there will still be a need to quarantine some folks, because they don't meet certain health protocols,” she said. “CPA is ready to welcome as many flights as possible, but we just want to make sure that when our tourists arrive, there is enough room to accommodate them.”