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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, June 27) – As Japan Airlines readies to halt regular service to the Northern Mariana Islands in August, it is investigating the start of direct charter flights to the Marshall Islands next year.

It’s a development that has Marshall Islands hotel and dive operators literally salivating.

The visit earlier this month by Koji Mochizuki, Japan region manager for the international passenger and sales planning department of Japan Air Lines, has for the first time elevated long-desired direct air service from Japan to the Marshall Islands from talk to a serious proposition.

"I’m particularly excited about this," said Bill Weza, general manager of the 150-room Marshall Islands Resort. "It could be the launching of a whole new direction for tourism in the Marshall Islands."

The Marshall Islands counts its tourists by the handful, with only 2,683 having visited in 2004. Local tour operators say that while this central Pacific nation has good diving and sportsfishing attractions, high airfares coupled with long flight and transit times, particularly for Japanese visitors flying to Majuro via Guam, is a big roadblock to increasing the number of visitors.

Satoshi Yoshii, owner of Marshall Islands Tours, has built a successful, though small dive operation catering to Japanese tourists. Last year, about 1,000 Japanese visited Majuro. But Yoshii said the problem is that it takes four days of travel time for Japanese to get to and from the Marshalls, so if they only have a one-week vacation, it doesn’t make this an attractive destination.

Island beauty aside, the Marshall Islands and Japan have significant historical ties, as Japan administered these islands between the two World Wars.

Since 2001, Sri Lankan financial consultant Sardha Jayashri Rasaputra has been working behind the scenes developing the link with JAL. A classmate of long-time Majuro businessman Prianga Fernando when the two were in grade school in Sri Lanka, he first visited the Marshalls in 2001, discovering the untapped tourism potential here.

After visiting some of the low-lying coral islands with their pristine lagoons and white sand beaches, Rasaputra said "I saw that Marshall Islands is a good place to get away from the rat race. The islands could be developed as a tourist resort."

Rasaputra’s lobbying with officials in Japan on the possibility of starting the route led to the visit by JAL’s Mochizuki. A JAL survey team is expected to visit Majuro soon to do a m ore detailed review of the charter proposal.

The proposal now under consideration by JAL is to launch weekly charter flights to bring about 200 visitors each week to Majuro from Japan using a Boeing 767. This number "can easily be handled by existing infrastructure in Majuro," Rasaputra said.

He said there are two main issues for JAL in looking at Majuro air service. There is a need to repave Majuro airport’s runway, a project that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has already approved for funding and is expected to start later this year. And because the airport handles mainly Boeing 727 and 737 aircraft, it doesn’t have ground handling equipment for servicing a Boeing 767.

Rasaputra said the paving will be completed later this year, and ground equipment is an easily resolvable problem.

"The moment the runway is finished, JAL will be ready," he said.

"No country has started with everything ready," he said of the JAL charter plan. "Ten years ago, JAL started charters into Palau and its airport looked like Majuro’s." But that’s now changed with a booming visitor industry in Palau, he said.

Once the charters start, numerous potential spin-off opportunities will open, including use of the outer islands, he said.

Weza called this a "very serious" plan by JAL. He also commented on the fact that for Japanese travelers, some Asian countries are now seen as dangerous because of terrorist activity. "The Marshalls can be a safe haven for them," he said. "We’re an island destination that Japanese have a cultural link with."

June 27, 2005

Marianas Variety: www.mvariety.com

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