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By Steve Limtiaco

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Nov. 1) – U.S. federal efforts to control immigration in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands could give Guam a shot at the visa waiver it needs to increase tourism from China, a retail industry executive told the Guam Chamber of Commerce during its membership meeting yesterday.

Jim Beighley, managing director of Duty Free Shops Mid-Pacific Division, said bills in the U.S. House and Senate that would federalize immigration in the Northern Marianas also would allow the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to retain its existing visa waiver for China.

It's possible that a visa waiver for Guam could be added to those bills, he said, noting that Guam could see as many as 700,000 Chinese tourists a year within the next five years if there was a waiver.

About 38 million Chinese traveled abroad last year, he said, and that number is expected to increase to 50 million travelers by 2010.

Beighley said a recently completed aviation agreement gives Chinese airlines unlimited access to Saipan and Guam, but Guam also needs a visa waiver to take advantage of the economic opportunity.

"We have a unique opportunity to work through that legislation and go after it," Beighley said during the lunch meeting at the Hilton Guam Resort and Spa.

Beighley, who was invited to speak on the topic of expanding Guam's tourism market, said Guam needs to diversify its tourist base.

Japan's population is aging, which means the number of Japanese tourists each year -- about 18 million – is not expected to grow, he said, and most tourist destinations are beginning to lose their market share from Japan.

Guam faces a lot of competition for Japanese tourists, he said, and the island needs to do things differently, including investing in tourist activities outside of Tumon.

Successful tourist destinations also have a very strong and authentic cultural component, Beighley said, and Guam needs to invest in cultural preservation and development.

"Real culture," and not manufactured tourist attractions like Tumon's "Pleasure Island" is what will drive the industry forward, he said, adding that Guam's Spanish-influenced island culture is unique.

"But we don't do nearly enough to develop it and invest in it," he said.

Chamber members at the beginning of yesterday's meeting observed a moment of silence for chamber President Eloise Baza, who died Monday at the age of 54. Several members of her family attended yesterday's meeting.

Chamber board Chairman Steve Ruder said Baza "practically grew up in the chamber," and worked tirelessly for 25 years to move it forward.

Baza laid the foundation, Ruder said, "And now we need to continue her work."

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