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Visitor numbers tumbled to 20-year low in 2010

By Giff Johnson MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Business Journal, Sept. 12, 2011) – A two-day tourism symposium held Aug. 29 - 30 has helped to refocus the struggling visitor industry in the Marshall Islands. Hit by a series of negative developments over the past several years, the number of visitors in 2010 hit a 20-year low.

Only 4,563 people came to the Marshall Islands in 2010 - barely half of the number who came in 2004, the best year since the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority began recording statistics in 1989. The symposium organized by MIVA endorsed a national tourism development plan to reinvigorate the industry.

The unreliability of Air Marshall Islands, the government's national airline, has been a key challenge for the Marshalls. There are dozens of pristine and sparsely populated islands in the country that could attract tourists, but the airline's inability since the mid-2000s to deliver reliable service has virtually eliminated the outer islands as a tourism option. The possibility of privatizing the airline is now getting its most serious consideration ever, which is an encouraging sign for tourism.

[PIR editor's note: Government officials in the Marshall Islands reported that the national airline had lost about US$19 million from 1999 to 2009, during which time it never operated at profit or with reliability.]

At the seminar, Gerald S. A. Perez, former general manager of the Guam Visitors Bureau, urged the Marshall Islands to follow the tourism path of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, which has successfully developed a luxury visitor industry based on pristine islands. "The challenge for the Marshall Islands is to develop a unified concept of how this destination is perceived (internationally)," Perez said. "What you have in the Marshall Islands – polish it and brand it." Perez's comments and those by other tourism advisors helped to stimulate discussion at the two-day symposium.

[PIR editor's note: A new resort scheduled to be open in 2012 on Ailinglaplap Atoll in the Ralik Chain of Islands in the Marshalls will cater to surfing and water sports enthusiasts.]

Symposium participants reviewed the four-year national tourism development plan approved in 2008, and reaffirmed its goals while narrowing the focus for the industry. They adopted a new four-year program of action to pump up the tourism industry.

Because the visitor industry remains modest in its impact in the Marshall Islands, a key need identified is to gain elected leadership support and community-level backing for tourism initiatives, the symposium concluded.

Majuro consultant Ben Graham, who participated in the symposium, said a new initiative is to establish a registry of islands available for tourism development. "The plan is to set up a website with photos and information on islands [that can be developed as resorts] to promote tourism development," he said.

Top priorities for the 2012-2014 period were outlined as:

Marianas Business Journal

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