AT ISSUE: CNMI BEYOND TOURISM AND GARMENTS

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By John S. DelRosario, Jr., Editor-in-Chief

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (June 8, 1998 - The Saipan Tribune)---When the ill winds of the Asian economic flu started washing up on the shores of governments throughout the region, most of our leaders treated it as another inconsequential event that doesn't necessarily merit serious assessment.

There's now the unpalatable struggle to make sense of this fatal economic flu against the weight of complacency and the urge to continue denying the serious nature of the problem before us. I'm afraid that we're in for a long bout with an economic slump triggered by external and internal influences.

We know that something's gone amiss, but we persistently and consistently deny it.

The greater question is how do we resolve the economic slump forced upon the NMI and to some extent, by the NMI? There certainly are no easy answers in that for the most part it is an external influence to which we have no control. And such is the very nature of the tourism sector. It has gone south and will continue to do so for the next three to six years.

We've asked the same question twice in the Viewpoints Section to hear the views of a cross section of this community. Some are good answers though best parked in our corner of "dreamland" given the obvious, i.e., hi-tech industry already taken by tiger countries. Others suggested the "nostalgia industry" if for no other reason than a quick journey into memorable and pleasurable experiences of years gone by. Still others revisited tired answers like commercial fisheries, its success now riding on the notion of a fisheries cartel. In other words, it must be done on a regional basis.

The idea of luring capital intensive industries into these isles sounds a bit far fetched. Not only have tiger countries started and cornered this industry since 30 years ago, they too are reeling from the Asian flu that now threatens their healthy economic foundation. Countries like Japan, Malaysia, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and India are half a century ahead in this sector. Would any of their investors relocate to these isles because it is our dream that a hi-tech industry is good for the NMI? We've done our pitch in trade missions in the US mainland for several years now. Our score is a mighty fat zero!

This whole discussion centers on defining the future of these islands. And we haven't done that for twenty years now. If we elect to go hi-tech, the next step is redefining our educational goals in order to prepare our future leaders to acquire technology literacy. It's the thing of the next millennium! Have we reached a decision in this regard or is it still in the tentative agenda level? It is a lengthy process, an arduous process, a process to which success could only be determined after several years in the mill.

For all our travails in search of a rock solid economic foundation, there are two substantive areas that warrant resolution lest we can bid adios to all efforts to placing our dreams on the long road to substantial economic recovery.

Local leadership (collectively) must articulate and impress upon the powers that be in Washington (both sides of the aisle) that it too must play a key role in instituting stable federal policies for these isles.

Local leadership must learn to look at the long-term consequences of public policy for therein lies the foundation of investor confidence in these isles. In other words, there's no room to impose protectionist and shortsighted policies that send all the wrong messages to well-meaning investors.

As it is, investors have slammed the brakes on partaking in lasting investments here as a result of the uncertainty and instability being fanned by the current controversy for a federal takeover of labor and immigration. This is the single most towering disincentive that major investors have found most troublesome. And it is an issue that would haunt us for as long as it isn't settled with finality. We need to constantly articulate this very aspect in our relationship lest we'd crash into ravines and cliffs every which way imaginable.

By the same token, we can't possibly approve protectionist policies for as long as we can't provide investors with the requisite basic infrastructure to ensure return on their investments. To date, water, power and sewer are basically inadequate. As recently as last week, an announcement from CUC says big hotels may be asked to use their own generators this summer because city power is insufficient especially during peak hours. The lack of water still abounds. Drilling more wells isn't going to increase this finite resource.

Is there any other alternative? Yes, but a costly alternative too! Finally, we can have anything we want under the bright skies of paradise. But it is equally worrisome that every El Niño Season, the threat of a shift in federal policy derails years of hard work washing off investor confidence in tsunami-like fashion. This is further fueled by protectionist and hollow local policies which have netted these isles less money in its coffers.

Think about it.

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