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MAJURO, Marshall Islands (March 13, 1998 - Marshall Islands Journal)---Last week, when Air Marshall Islands became an airline with no planes flying, it hurt much more than domestic services. The budding tourism industry took a double hit: divers attempting to go to Bikini never got out of Majuro, and a wholesale tour operator who is planning to book American sports fishermen to go to Mili and other atolls was forced to take a rough, 10 hour open ocean boat ride to get to Mili.

"If it happens a couple more times, the wholesalers and tour operators (in the U.S.) say they will cancel the program and refund all the deposits that have been made by visitors planning to come to the Marshalls," said Peter Fuchs, chief operations officer at Robert Reimers Enterprises that operates Marshalls Dive Adventures.

As a scenario for disaster, it couldn't have been much worse for scuba diving and sports fishing promotion for the Marshall Islands. The first scuba divers of the new season at Bikini were stranded in Majuro when AMI's German-built Dornier commuter plane was out of commission for the regular Wednesday flight. Hopes that the divers could get to Bikini on the larger HS748 the next day were dashed when that plane also was grounded. The divers were forced to return home without getting off Majuro, and MDA had to refund their travel costs to the Marshalls, or more than $4,000 for the two divers.

Then Paul McBride of International Anglers, Inc., a sports fishing wholesale company in California, was planning to fly to Mili Thursday to check out the fishing so he could sell package tours to American visitors.

Instead of flying, he had to take a 60 mile boat ride to Mili, which Fuchs said "was not a fun ride." Fuchs said that as much as McBride likes fishing in the Marshalls, he won't sell packages to sports fishermen if they can't fly to their destinations.

Fuchs was quick to add that he doesn't blame AMI. "The airline doesn't have the financial support," he said. "If there are no parts, the planes can't fly." The government, he said, needs to do something to get AMI's operations onto a firmer foundation so that the fledgling tourism industry has a chance for survival.

AMI is a "crucial link" for the tourism industry, said Ben Graham, general manager of the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority. The problems last week, he said, are totally indicative of the need to get the airline privatized as soon as possible because repeated cancellation of flights that strand visitors "sends the wrong signal to tour operators who want to send tourists to the Marshall Islands."

Graham said it is clear that AMI's future financial success is dependent on the growing visitor industry. "Maintaining the program of tour packages to the outer atolls is in their best interests," he added.

Like Fuchs, Graham said AMI staff are doing their best under the current circumstances. But, as last week's grounding of all AMI's planes demonstrated, it isn't adequate to service either the visitor industry or the domestic market. Graham suggested that there has never been a more critical time for AMI to be reliable and consistent in its services. In the short term, the government needs to get adequate funding to AMI so it can reliably and consistently provide services, Graham commented.

"We are anticipating at least 300 scuba divers and sports fishermen (coming to the Marshalls) this year," Fuchs said. More than 200 have already booked to dive Bikini this year, and there is a lot of interest in fishing and diving in Mili Atoll. "But it will dry up if the planes don't work."

Graham confirmed the increasing visitor interest in the Marshalls. "There is lots of momentum with the dive and sports fishing industry now," he said. "If AMI can't provide the service, it will be the end of tourism traffic to the Marshall Islands. The airline is such a crucial link."

MARSHALL ISLANDS JOURNAL Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail: Fax: 692-625-3136 Tel. 692-625-8143 Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year: US $87.00; International $227.00 (air mail)

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