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By Lindablue F. Romero

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (September 1, 1998 - Saipan Tribune)---As tourist arrivals continue to decline amid the financial crisis in Asia, hotel occupancy in the Northern Marianas plunged 54 percent in July, the biggest drop since the beginning of the year.

Ron Sablan, president of the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, has expressed fears that some hotels may be forced to close shop if the Asian recession fails to show any sign of improvement towards the end of 1999.

Based on the HANMI report, the Northern Marianas enjoyed high occupancy rate in 1995 with 83 percent and in 1996 with 86 percent. Despite the beginning of the Asian crisis in July last year, hotels still enjoyed a relatively good occupancy rate of 81 percent.

The downturn in visitor arrivals has also resulted in the average monthly room rate dropping to only $121.55 in July compared to $145.17 in the same month of the previous year.

Sablan said various establishments have already reduced the number of employees and man hours just to cope with the slowdown in business.

Since the beginning of the year, most hotel establishments have reduced their rates by bringing them to 1996 to 1994 levels, but this has not helped improved the number of visitor arrivals.

For the tourism industry to survive, Sablan stressed the importance of the four members of the travel business, namely: the hotels, airlines, local tour operators and wholesalers, to agree on selling a cheap tour package. If only hotels would, the impact will not be felt by the consumers.

Unfortunately, Sablan said there is very little that the industry can do at this time when the economic crisis is beyond its control. Sablan said this situation should prod the government and the private sector to sit down and remove the restrictions associated with doing business in the Northern Marianas.

Earlier, HANMI asked Labor and Immigration Secretary Mark Zachares to amend the implementing rules and regulations of Public Law 11-6 --to allow the easy transfer of workers to other establishments-- because it is not responsive to the needs of the tourism industry, in particular, and the business community, in general.

At the same time, Sablan said the Marianas Visitors Authority and members of the industry should not only be concerned with the number of tourist arrivals but also whether tourist expectations are being met when they come to the islands.

In marketing the Northern Marianas as an ideal destination in the Pacific, the CNMI has failed to establish a strong identity that will show the distinct Chamorro and Carolinian cultures. Likewise, the CNMI has not used its advantage of proximity to other Asian destinations in marketing the island, he added.

Since travelers have become more discriminating now in choosing which places to visit, Sablan noted the importance of revitalizing the culture and history of the CNMI so that these can be used as tourist attractions and not just capitalize on the beaches of the islands.

To reduce the impact of the crisis, members of the industry and the CNMI government have been working together to finalize the list of festivities to be included in the Visit the Marianas '99 Campaign before the formal launching in Japan this month.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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