NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS: SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: A YEAR LATER

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By Aldwin R. Fajardo Staff Reporter

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (September 11, 2002 -- Saipan Tribune)---The Northern Marianas was just starting to crawl out of the devastating impacts of the Asian currency crisis when it was hit by a much larger catastrophe that forever changed the landscape of the world's air transportation industry: the simultaneous -- almost synchronized -- crash attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

The Commonwealth's economic agony appeared infinitesimal side by side with the world's gargantuan financial affliction caused by the dramatic slowdown in air travel, considering that the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks sowed terror by crashing four commercial aircraft into some of America's structural pride.

And as America scrambled to save lives trapped in the ruins of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Northern Marianas mourned with the world over the lives lost as it scurried to save what was left of the ailing Commonwealth tourism industry -- the better half of the island's economic backbone, the garment industry.

Not all efforts paid off, though, for the impacts of the Sept. 11 terror attacks were more than just cruel events that forced travelers to momentarily -- several months after the crash -- stay away from air transportation. The world's aviation industry was literally at a standstill following the attacks, eventually pushing one of America's largest airline companies to file for bankruptcy.

Here at home, the Marianas Visitors Authority reported that the CNMI lost an average of 804 visitors everyday, or a daily average decline of 49 percent immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. From Sept. 15 to 30, 2001, the Commonwealth lost 15,276 visitors, compared to figures recorded in 2000.

Before the WTC and Pentagon attacks last year, the Northern Marianas welcomed an average of 1,368 visitors each day. No less than the MVA acknowledged that the Sept. 11 tragedies derailed the local tourism industry's recovery from the Asian financial crisis.

The Commonwealth Ports Authority also reported a painful slowdown in aviation-related activities since last year's attacks, with aircraft landings dropping to 13,212. Executive Director Carlos H. Salas said the ports authority had actually prepared for the worst but added that measures were immediately put in place to prevent a deeper fall in airport revenues.

"After Sept. 11, we thought it will be the worst. It was for the CPA, in some aspects, but we managed to minimize our projected revenue fall," Salas told the Saipan Tribune, adding that the anticipated 20 percent drop in earnings last financial year was confined to 17 percent.

The CPA -- and the CNMI tourism industry in general -- was grossly impacted by the slowdown in aviation-related activities resulting from the Sept. 11 tragedies. Salas said the attacks caused a significant reduction in enplanement and landing statistics that translated to millions of dollars in badly needed revenues for the CNMI and its fatally-injured economy.

"It really caused major impacts in a sense that we experienced a dramatic decline in passenger and aircraft traffic," he added.

True enough, the MVA recorded an all-time low of fewer than 30,000 visitors in September 2001, representing a 35.56 percent drop from the same month in 2000.

The September 2001 arrival figure translated to a loss of some 15,000 tourists, or more than 17,000 visitors when compared with August 2001. Tourism officials stemmed down the dramatic decline to the global travel scare brought on by the Sept. 11 attacks. Arrival statistics are expected to start returning to normal towards the last quarter of this year.

Airport Security

"The Sept. 11 eventualities also strained the CPA coffers deeper because we needed to cough up more for additional airport security measures mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. We had to be in compliance with these safety regulations so we needed to expand funding for our airport operations -- security, personnel, overtime, uniform and additional essentials," Salas said.

Last year's terror attacks raised concerns over proper law enforcement at all points of entry at all times. Sept. 11 also upped security levels at the airports across the United States, entailing additional money, which the CNMI currently lacks. But the FAA was not to compromise safety and security over frugality, pitching in additional funding for the CPA to carry out the beefed up measures.

"To ensure the safety of passengers departing from the Saipan airport, we have been carefully inspecting passengers, who all undergo thorough screening at the airport. Every passenger should be regarded as a 'safe passenger' before we can actually allow an aircraft to take off," he added.

The CPA initially received help from the Guam National Guard, which sent six members to Saipan to assist in ensuring safety and in implementing federal security regulations at the island's international air transport facility. The activation of the National Guard to implement additional security in all airports nationwide stems from an FAA directive that requires all ports of entry to step up security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In line with this, the CPA had submitted five major airport security improvement projects to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The projects cost about $5.74 million, which are to be funded by the FAA.

The projects mirror the federal government's call for tighter security measures at all airports across the United States under the New Airport Security Requirements. The projects -- security screening checkpoints, electronic fingerprinting equipment, law enforcement vehicle, and enhancement of security surveillance equipment -- will be carried out in compliance with the new security standards mandated by the FAA.

Lessons Learned

The days after Sept. 11 were spent by everyone around the world trying to come to terms with the worst attacks on peace and freedom -- and the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of workers and businessmen around the globe. Not even its physical isolation spared the Northern Marianas from the aftershocks of the crash attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. If ever something good came out of this situation, it has to be the message that tells islanders clearly and loudly -- the CNMI is one with the world; it is not, in any way, more special than any other island or country; it is not as invincible as what others think.

One thing the world learned from terrorism is that it inevitably hurts the people who need tourism dollars the most -- hard-working people of modest means who keep the industry going.

And as the world commemorates the grim picture of Sept. 11 terror attacks during its first anniversary, the Northern Marianas shares a voice that loudly condemns such a horrible attack to peace, freedom and humanity.

The Commonwealth also honors the men and women whose heroism instinctively came out to help save lives in the ruins of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- as well as the passengers of the flight that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania for heroically fighting their hijackers and offering their own lives to save that of the unwitting others in downtown Washington, D.C.

(With reports from Edith G. Alejandro)

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