TOURISM GLOOM HANGS OVER NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS

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By Lindablue F. Romero

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (January 6, 1999 - Saipan Tribune)---As Japan's economy remains in the dump, one of the biggest tour operators on Saipan is projecting a 10 percent slide in the number of Japanese visitors handled by the company.

Koki Narita, President of Tasi Tours, said it is expecting to bring in some 85,000 to 90,000 Japanese travelers this year, the same number of tourists it handled in 1996, but fewer than last year. Tasi Tours is an affiliate of Pacific Micronesia Tours and Japan Travel Bureau, the largest wholesaler in Japan.

"I'm afraid I'm not too optimistic that we will see some recovery this year. We have not reached the bottom yet," Narita said.

Japan, the world's second biggest economy, has been battling its worst recession since World War II. The Japanese government has been under pressure by the United States to carry out economic reforms so that it can help its Asian neighbors which have been suffering from the regional crisis.

According to Narita, the laying off of many employees in major companies in Japan will have a major effect on the tourism industry since company tour groups make up a big market.

In addition, the decline in frequency of flights of various airlines and the change in operation using smaller aircraft are some of the factors which have contributed to the reduction in visitor arrivals. At least one-third of the combined flights of various airlines have been reduced from 1997 to 1998 due to Asia's economic problems.

Since Continental Micronesia has dropped a number of its direct flights from major destinations in Japan to Saipan, many Japanese travelers have opted to stay on Guam because they do not want to wait another one-and-a-half-hour to take the connecting flight to Saipan, said Narita

"They believe that there is no difference between Guam and Saipan as a destination so they don't come here anymore," he added. For Japanese travelers who are not keen on nature trips, Guam may be a favorable destination since it has more leisure facilities, shopping centers and hotels to choose from.

Although Narita believes that the CNMI will remain an attractive destination to Japanese travelers, he said the islands have been losing market share, since many airlines in other destinations have reduced their airfares, making tour packages very cheap.

Many Japanese tourists continue to flock to Korea as tour packages can be had for as low as $250 because of the low value of the won against the yen.

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

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