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HONOLULU, Hawaii (September 26, 1997 - PIDP/CPIS)---The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is described by Bank of Hawaii economist Wali Osman as "a country within a country," with the "most dynamic economy in the Pacific."

The Pacific islands specialist says the Marianas have the advantage of the U.S. constitution, flag and currency but the freedom, for the present at least, to ignore restrictive immigration, minimum wage, and other labor laws that apply elsewhere throughout the United States and its territories.

As a result, he says, the CNMI "may be the only economy in the Pacific still growing, and growing rapidly."

The territory, using primarily low-paid alien labor from China and other parts of Asia, has developed a thriving knit shirt garment manufacturing industry, with "Made in USA" labels that avoid mainland import taxes.

The legal loopholes, authorized when the Northern Marianas became a integral part of the Untied States through a 1978 Covenant, now are receiving intense and critical attention from Washington, and are expected to be closed over the next several years by Congress, under administration, union, and mainland manufacturers' pressure.

But Osman, in a just published Bank of Hawaii economic report, says while CNMI garment manufacturer may be a less attractive business in the future, the U.S. Pacific island area just 1,500 miles from Japan has other advantages and opportunities.

Asian tourism already is well established and is certain to grow, he suggests, with a new hotel-casino under construction on Tinian, the second largest island in the CNMI chain after Saipan, and other facilities in the planning stage.

Osman says CNMI tourist counts, which have grown an average 12.2 percent since 1980, totaled $587.8 million in 1996.

Japan is the CNMI's best customer, followed by Korea, although Korean flights have been canceled temporarily due to last months crash on Guam of a Korean Air Boeing 747 jumbo jet that has resulted in the deaths of 228 persons.

The mix of tourism and trade activities that has made Hawaii and the CNMI's closest neighbor, Guam, prosperous economies, stresses Osman, is also in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands' future.

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