CNMI tourism is in ‘desperate mode’

Crowne Plaza Resort Saipan (Photo: IHG)

The Commonwealth of Northern Marianas (CNMI)‘s only industry, tourism, is in a “desperate mode,” according to the officers of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association of NMI.

In a meeting with members of the House of Representatives on Monday, chamber board member Alex Sablan and HANMI Chairman Ivan Quichocho reiterated the message of their 20 October, joint letter to CNMI officials regarding the “collapse” of the tourism industry.

By looking at the overall tourism numbers, Sablan said “we are really at a point of desperation….”All the numbers pertaining to tourist arrivals “are way down as you know,” he told lawmakers.

Quichocho said the hotel industry is “in absolute desperation mode.” Current hotel occupancy and the revenue generated from it “are not covering” their costs.

“We are fielding cash losses,” he added. “Our industry is in trouble. We need help. We really have to go after every [tourism] market,” he said.

Sablan said this is the message they are trying to convey to CNMI officials.

Gov. Arnold I. Palacios earlier announced that the CNMI was “pivoting away” from “overreliance on Chinese investment” while seeking “to strengthen our relationships with our federal partners and allies in the region.”

Alex Sablan said they have had a conversation with the administration regarding issues related to the Chinese market.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, China was the CNMI’s No. 2 market with 185,536 arrivals in 2019. This figure plummeted to 18,550 in 2020; 12 in 2021; and 186 in 2022. 

Sablan said because the tourism industry is struggling, the business community, especially hotel operators, is interested in opening the islands to all tourism markets, including Australia and Taiwan.

Right now, he said the CNMI’s primary tourism market is South Korea, which has yet to fully recover. Tourists from Japan, he added, are not coming back.

He also said that the current tourism numbers that the Marianas Visitors Authority is comparing with the 2019 figures are “distorted.” He said the CNMI was hit by Super Typhoon Yutu in Oct. 2018, which pulled down the number of arrivals in that year.

He said if the present numbers are compared with 2017, it would be down by 60% to 70%.

“I guess that’s an anomaly from the standpoint of statistics, but we feel it’s important [to point out] because we are not sending the right message — we are [worse off] in dire straits than I think people are reporting. We are not 50% down against 2019. We really believe the real number we should be focused on is 60% or 65% or 70% down,” he added.

This means that current arrivals are a mere 30% of what they used to be prior to Yutu and the pandemic.

All the occupancy numbers are way down,” Alex Sablan said. Otherwise, the hotel occupancy tax collection should be up not down, he added. Right now, “everyone in the tourism industry is in a wait-and-see mode. Probably, 80% of the marine tour operators are not running their jet skis. Nothing’s happening in the tourist district after 7 p.m. and retail operators are just hoping that maybe tourism is going to come back but there is nothing on the horizon, said Sablan.