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Seeks to include lucrative tourism markets in visa waiver program

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Marianas Variety, May 20, 2010) – Officials from Guam and the Northern Marianas renewed their call to the U.S. Congress to lobby for the inclusion of Russia and China in the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program.

They also asked U.S. lawmakers to allow Guam to have the parole authority to admit visitors from the two countries similar to what is being done to the CNMI.

Due to security and political concerns, Russia and China were not included on the list of countries whose citizens can enter the CNMI and Guam visa-free.

This policy, however, is under review.

During Tuesday’s U.S. House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife oversight hearing on the implementation of U.S. Public Law 110-229 or the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 in the Northern Marianas and Guam, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial said while the CNMI appreciates the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s consent to use its parole authority to allow Russian and Chinese tourists to visit the islands visa free, the delay in the decision cost the CNMI economy US$7.8 million.

"The CNMI Marianas Visitors Authority estimates that the 15-day delay in the implementation of the parole policy cost the CNMI US$5.4 million and US$2.4 million in lost revenue from China and Russia, respectively," he said.

Further, the governor said the discretionary parole policy on Russian and Chinese tourists contradicts the goal of having a unified and harmonized visa waiver program for both Guam and the CNMI.

"The commonwealth needs the assistance of the subcommittee with respect to the amendment of the interim final rule so as to include China and Russia, if necessary, in proposing to amend the law to mandate this result," he added.

Guam Gov. Felix Camacho, for his part, said CNRA failed to accomplish its goal of enlivening the tourism industry in the Marianas.

"I want to remind the committee that it was the intent of the U.S. Congress that there would be a visa waiver program for both Guahan and the CNMI. Not one over another or one separated-it would be a single program," he said.

"I was troubled that back in January 2009, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a final rule on the visa waiver program that completely contravened the congressional intent set out by this Committee and has literally taken my island backwards. In November of 2009, Parole Authority was extended to the CNMI for China and Russia tourists. Guahan was not afforded the same authority," he added.

The Guam governor said efforts must be made to make opportunities for both territories available at their disposal.

"I believe that efforts must be undertaken to equalize efforts in the region by extending parole authority to Guahan and improve the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program rules so that our collective tourism communities can have access to these vital source markets with carryover benefits to the rest of the islands in the Northern Pacific including the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia," he said.

About 1.2 million tourists, mostly Japanese, visit Guam every year and contribute US$1.2 billion in its economy.

Camacho said a diversified tourism market through a favorable visa waiver program will generate an additional US$1.5 billion in Guam’s economy.

The CNMI is hoping that the emerging tourism markets of Russia and China will help boost the commonwealth’s sluggish tourism industry.

These two markets currently account for approximately 20 percent of the CNMI’s annual tourist arrivals rate, the government said.

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