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By Lindablue F. Romero

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (June 30, 1998 - The Saipan Tribune)---In the almost one year since the Asian crisis began, the Northern Marianas tourism economy has been heavily battered. Visitor arrivals declined 33 percent or a total of 41,328 for the month of May compared to the same period last year.

For eight straight months, tourist arrivals have been on a downturn, sending jitters to many businesses on the island as sales in most establishments dropped by 50 percent.

Japan, the island's main tourism market, registered an 18 percent decrease, with total visitor arrivals of 31,985. Without doubt, Asia is on shaky ground as Japan's economy plunged into recession -- its deepest since World War II. The economic crisis in Japan, the world's second-largest economy, has badly hurt Asia, which has been heavily dependent on Japanese investments and Japanese loans.

"This is the worse crisis we've ever experienced here and the sad thing is we don't know when this will end," said Hideo Oyama, sales and marketing manager of Duty Free Shoppers (DFS) on Saipan. The Gulf War in 1991 did not even have any effect on the island's economy.

Oyama said there has been a substantial decrease in DFS sales and management has already released some employees as well as cut down on its working hours to survive.

But DFS is not the only business feeling the pain. At La Fiesta San Roque Shopping Mall, sales have declined by 40 percent, according to Yoshiro Katsunoi, general manager, Tropical Plaza, Ltd. He projects a 15 percent decrease in tourist arrivals every month until the end of the year.

"With this situation, of course, I'm scared because the weakening of the yen has made a lot of tourists very conscious of how they spend their money," said Katsunoi. He said sales have been down since October of last year and may get worse before the end of the year.

As the Asian crisis looms ever larger, many shops in Garapan, Saipan's tourist district, have closed down, leaving vacant spaces in many commercial buildings.

If it is any consolation, arrivals from Hong Kong jumped by 56 percent last month compared to May 1997. According to Anicia Q. Tomokane, managing director of the Marianas Visitors Authority, this can be attributed to the recent opening of Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino, which has aggressively launched its own marketing campaign.

The hotel-casino complex has given Tinian island a boost in its tourism economy, with tourists coming mainly from Guam. In May alone, there were 446 visitors from Guam, mostly U.S. citizens.

Tourism officials do not expect any sign of improvement from the Korean market as arrivals declined by 84 percent. Taiwan, on the other hand, registered a 49 percent decline and may not show any dramatic change as Far Eastern Air Transport has postponed indefinitely its decision to provide air service to Saipan due to the Asian financial and stock market turmoil.

Businessmen said the island should brace for the worse since many analysts now believe that the currency crisis will fester beyond 1998.

Asia, without doubt, still is on shaky ground. Since the beginning of the crisis last year, bad economic news in one country travels fast, quickly pulling down its neighbors' currency and stock markets, a reflection of the nations' tight links.

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