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By Liberby Dones

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Dec. 31) – The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas will greet the New Year with an additional arrow up its economic sleeve - the much-anticipated Approved Destination Status agreement, which was formally signed yesterday in Beijing.

The agreement boosts the CNMI hope of luring at least 50,000 Chinese tourists each year.

Acting governor Diego T. Benavente disclosed that the CNMI delegation, headed by Gov. Juan N. Babauta, formally signed the ADS Memorandum of Understanding with Chinese officials yesterday noon in Beijing.

"The ADS is now complete with that signing and we are now a full-pledged authorized destination for Chinese tourists," said Benavente.

Benavente said the governor spoke with him yesterday shortly after the signing. "The governor said that the ceremony went well," said Benavente.

Details of the agreement will be discussed at length during a press conference at the Governor's Office on Monday morning, he said.

The Dec. 30 signing came after at least four aborted trips by CNMI officials to China this year.

Beijing, which notified the CNMI of its ADS application approval in early October, had initially planned to hold the formal signing in November but due to conflict with the schedule of key Chinese tourism officials, it was moved to Dec. 15. The Dec. 15 schedule was later moved to Dec. 21, which also proved to be not feasible. Finally, officials agreed to schedule it on Dec. 30.

Aside from the ADS agreement, the CNMI was also expected to sign a complementary agreement on pre-arranged group tours of Chinese to the Commonwealth.

The ADS serves as a guide for Chinese tourists when making travel choices overseas. Chinese tourists are able to travel to ADS countries more easily as part of pre-organized tour groups. This will also allow the CNMI to openly advertise the destination in China.

This comes even as the federal government has expressed concern over the readiness of the CNMI to handle the entry of Chinese citizens.

Insular Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary David Cohen said in a recent talk with Babauta in Washington D.C. that the ADS poses new challenges to the CNMI's local immigration in view of the possible entry of "questionable" individuals.

The federal government said the CNMI should ensure proper background security checks of tourists prior to their entry into the Commonwealth.

Over the years, CNMI and Guam authorities have intercepted foreign nationals, mostly Chinese, in the sea trying to illegally enter Guam.

The MOU signing on pre-packaged group tours was initially set early this year but was held off due to a brewing political tension between the U.S. and China over the U.S. government's policy requiring foreigners to be photographed and fingerprinted upon entry to the United States. The MOU was seen as a step toward achieving ADS.

Babauta earlier said that the MOU had already been reviewed and recommended for approval by the Chinese embassy in the United States as well as by the U.S. State Department.

Babauta had announced the ADS granting in early October, together with Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino chair Michael Kwan and TDHC general manager Tom Liu.

In anticipation of the status, the Marianas Visitors Authority has set up three offices in China for CNMI marketing and promotions.

Liu said he expects to see more direct flights between China and Saipan. He said that Beijing-Saipan flights may be added by early 2005.

Currently, there are chartered flights coming from China to the CNMI every week: two flights from Guangzhou and two from Shanghai. These flights are chartered by THDC using China Southern Airline and China Eastern Airline.

"It may take some time to prepare for the Beijing-Saipan flights. We're looking at January," Liu said.

The CNMI's ADS application was reportedly recommended for approval by CNTA chair He Guanghei, who visited the CNMI in early 2003.

Following his visit, other Chinese delegations also came separately to the CNMI, including China's consul general and deputy consul general to Los Angeles.

The Pacific Asia Travel Association earlier underscored the huge potential of China as a tourism market, saying that Chinese spending on travel is predicted to reach $100 billion by 2008.

John M. Koldowski, PATA's Strategic Intelligence Centre managing director, said there were more departures from China than from Japan-the CNMI's premier tourism market-in 2002.

More than 16 million people from China traveled outside the country. In 1993, the recorded outbound travel from China was at 3.74 million only.

Compared to travel statistics in 1996, China's outbound travel soared by 328.1 percent, while that of Japan slightly went down by 1 percent. "What Japan took 30 years to do, China did in six years," Koldowski said.

With a population of at least 1.2 billion, China's "super rich" class equates to almost 11 million people. The middle class, which comprises 8.1 percent of the population, earns an equivalent of $4,000 to $12,000.

In Australia, PATA said that Chinese tourists spend an average of A$5,638 during a visit; in Singapore, S$498; in Thailand, US$610.

CNMI authorities said a maximum of some 50,000 Chinese visitors to the islands in 2005 is a manageable number, considering the hotels and facilities available in CNMI, as well as the passenger screening capacity of the currently understaffed Transportation Security Administration

December 31, 2004

Saipan Tribune

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