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By Lindablue F. Romero

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (March 19, 1999 - Saipan Tribune/Edited)---Japanese arrivals in the CNMI have shown little sign of improvement this year, and the recovery of Japan's tourism market and economy will not take place until the year 2001, according to an airline executive.

Dousing the hopes of many businessmen and local officials for an the immediate rebound of the Japanese economy, the world's second largest, Tom Shigemitsu, director for international passenger marketing and sales planning for Japan Airlines, said any sign of improvement would only be a very slight increase compared to the growth experienced in the late 1980's.

Visitor arrivals may only grow by five percent annually over the next six-year period. This analysis of the island's economy shows that the Northern Marianas is headed for a recession between now and 2005.

Due to the recession in Japan, there has been a sharp decline in group tours funded by organizations, but there will be no full recovery even if the Japanese economy returns to normal, Shigemitsu said.

He urged the CNMI to tap the growing number of students who join school excursions since this market segment is expected to begin shifting from domestic tours to foreign travel. There has been coordination between carriers and travel agents to promote school excursions to many destinations, he noted.

Various companies and organizations in Japan are undergoing restructuring which will lead to more cost conscious operations, such as cuts in employee welfare tours. However, incentive tours are still popular among a number of companies, such as Charle, Miki Prune, Amway and Sony Life Insurance, which continue to look for overseas attractions for thousands of salespersons.

Among other factors that will affect the popularity of tourist destinations, said Shigemitsu, will be shifts in air capacity, a sharp decline in the number of young women going abroad and changes in Japanese attitudes toward travel.

Foreign carriers that have cut down on flights from Kansai and other local airports have begun influencing the creation of package tours to new and different destinations.

Cost-conscious travelers from Japan increasingly prefer to fly to nearby Asian countries, especially Korea, which will continue to be a major destination for Japanese tourists. Also, the Japan Airlines officials said, Japanese interest in nature encourages them to travel to areas less visited, such as Scandinavia and New Zealand.

The honeymoon market showed signs of stagnation for a while with only 700,000 weddings a year, but now that the second baby boomers have reached marrying age, the number of newlyweds has grown to about 800,000, 97 percent of which can be expected to go abroad for their honeymoon.

Shigemitsu noted that recent newlyweds prefer to hold their wedding ceremony overseas with their families only, since they no longer want to spend a fortune on expensive wedding ceremonies at Japan's hotels to accommodate friends and officemates.

Now, individually-arranged travel FIT) is estimated to account for 35 percent of Japan's total market. Historically, FITs , which consist mainly of discount air tickets and free hotel accommodations, were sold almost underground by a few specialized agents. "But now, all major travel firms have joined this market giving them much broader character," he added. Formerly catering to the young, the discount market now targets all age groups and will likely grow accordingly.

The senior travel market is another growth area for the future. Japanese aged 65 years old and above now exceed 20 million. One in six persons is 65 years old or more. It is estimated by the year 2015, one in four will be over 65 years old.

Even though Japan has the highest proportion of senior citizens in the world, elderly persons can still enjoy 20 more years of their life after retirement. Current pensioners, most of whom are over 60 years old, are recipients of the world's most generous pension, 230,000 yen or $2,000 a month. No wonder, the senior citizens take luxury cruise tours to Europe.

Pleasure package tours organized by wholesalers still enjoy great popularity. According to the Ministry of Transport survey, package tour participants grew by 2.3 percent from April to November 1998 despite the overall decrease in the total number of travelers.

During the last yearend and New Year holidays, bookings by major wholesalers reportedly registered a 4.5 percent increase, which can be attributed to lower package tour prices and the ease of using them.

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

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