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By Aldwin R. Fajardo

ROTA, Northern Mariana Islands (February 29, 2000 – Saipan Tribune)---At least 100 tourism leaders from the Northern Marianas and neighboring islands in Micronesia gathered here yesterday for a five-day symposium aimed at developing the region's ecotourism potential.

Government tourism officials and industry players all over Micronesia have been on the lookout for ways to help revive the region's travel industry, which has been in decline since major Asian currencies weakened against the U.S. dollar in mid-1997.

Given the diverse culture and the unspoiled environment in the region, federal officials and industry experts said Micronesia has a good chance of attracting an emerging market of new travelers who are more likely to abandon the traditional beach vacation.

During yesterday's opening of the conference, funded by the U.S. Office of Insular Affairs, Marianas Visitors Authority officials talked about the Micronesian traveler profile, current industry trends and carrying capacity issues potentially faced by various islands in the region which are considering further developing ecotourism.

Officials said a new travel market, which tries to avoid the fast-paced and congested urban life and looks for other adventurous activities from which they can learn, has emerged and is slowly growing.

However, experts from the United States said ecotourism does not start and end with entertaining visitors who are looking for fun in natural surroundings.

Ecotourism entails certain social responsibilities both from the travelers and industry players, including government officials and private sector businesses, experts said at the Heritage Ecotourism Symposium.

They said under the principles of ecotourism, vacationers travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment, as well as take care of and not alter the integrity of the ecosystem.

An effective ecotourism program is one which allows visitors to enjoy and learn more about the environment while producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local residents.

"Ecotourism should be a learning experience. The travelers should learn about the environment and its people and the causes of destruction of the areas they visit," experts said.

In expressing support for the ecotourism development efforts of the CNMI and other Micronesian island-states, OIA said the move is in line with the Department of the Interior's economic development initiative for all U.S. territories.

Insular Affairs Director Danny Aranza said this new brand of travel must offer the visitor an opportunity to interact with nature in such a way as to make it possible to preserve or enhance the special qualities of the site and its flora and fauna.

Also, House Speaker Ben Fitial said all future economic development in the Northern Marianas has to be environment-friendly, stressing that the environment must receive the government's greatest attention and concern.

"It means that we must develop the infrastructure to deliver adequate clean water and power that complements our environmental goals. If we fail to do these things and do them promptly, we will never attract new businesses and we will find ourselves beset with ever greater costs," Mr. Fitial said.

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

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