Just in the nick of time, the House Natural Resources Committee came to the rescue of hundreds of marine sports operators, their families, and supporters late yesterday afternoon by stopping-at least for now-the Department of Public Lands from implementing on Monday new rules that limit how tourists from Managaha Island are picked up for parasailing and banana boat tours, among other commercial activities.
Acting DPL secretary Ray Salas later said he will decide on the House panel's request after his meeting on Thursday with the committee chairman and the parties involved.
Rep. Joe Palacios (R-Saipan), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, asked DPL for an additional 30 days or up to Nov. 29 for the panel to come up with recommendations before the department implements the new rules.
For more than three hours or up to almost 5:30pm yesterday, the House panel heard from affected parties on the proposed amended rules on the commercial use of Managaha, including the exclusive concessionaire on the island, Tasi Tours, marine sports operators, and DPL.
Prior to the hearing in the House chamber, DPL was poised to adopt the amendment to the 1993 rules on Managaha's commercial use. The proposed amended regulations provide that picking up persons for commercial activities from Managaha, regardless of how such persons were initially transported to the island, is limited to a designated concessionaire.
At the hearing, Salas was accompanied by DPL legal counsel Michael Wilt.
Attorney Bruce Berline, who spoke in support of his friends in the marine sports industry, asked DPL whether as a public agency, it will adopt regulations that do not have public support. Berline was referring to at least 322 public comments received by DPL-all opposing its proposed rule.
About a hundred marine sports operators, their families and supporters-mostly clad in white shirts-trooped to the House of Representatives on Capital Hill, asking the House Natural Resources Committee to stop Monday's implementation of the proposed rules.
They also brought with them banners that read, “DPL should not change the rules after 18 years,” and “Save local marine sports industry! Save our livelihood! Tourism needs us.”
Cuki Alvarez of Taotao Marine Sports said their customers don't make reservations with Tasi Tours but with marine sports operators like themselves.
“Tasi Tours already controls Managaha; they want to control the lagoon. Please kill this rule before it kills the livelihood of everybody,” Alvarez told the House committee.
Rexford Kosack, legal counsel for Tasi Tours, said if the CNMI government has entered into a contract with Tasi Tours promising that Tasi Tours will have the exclusive right to parasailing and banana boating, “then Tasi Tours is entitled to that right.”
“When Tasi Tours has paid the government millions of dollars for this right, it certainly should expect that the government will deliver on each and every one of its promises. If the Commonwealth cannot deliver on these basic promises to a key company in its tourism industry, what company will want to do business with us?” Kosack told the committee.
Besides Kosack, Tasi Tours general manager for corporate planning David Igitol also spoke in support of DPL's proposed regulations.
Igitol said Tasi Tours has paid $10 million to Public Lands for the exclusive commercial concession rights on Managaha. It has eight subcontractors that operate on Managaha engaging in businesses like marine sports, food and beverage service, and retail operations.
“Having paid for, and been promised, an exclusive concession, Tasi should receive an exclusive concession. To expect Tasi to accept a non-exclusive concession would not be fair, and it would not be in the best interest of Managaha or the people of the CNMI,” he added.
But attorneys representing marine operators said there's no question about Tasi Tours' exclusive concessionaire agreement with DPL, but on DPL's proposed rule.
Other marine sports operators, including 73-year-old David Pangelinan, questioned DPL's decision to change its rules when he and other operators have already invested a lot of money to run their business.
He said it's going to be “terrible” for him and his family if DPL's proposed rules are implemented.
Mark Scoggins, one of the lawyers for the marine sports operators, told the House committee that based on what they're hearing from Tasi Tours during the hearing is this: Once marine sports operators drop their customers on Managaha, they are no longer their customers, and they can no longer leave Managaha to do parasailing or banana boat tours with these operators even on their way back to Saipan.
Another alternative, the marine sports operators said, based on the proposed rules, is for these tourists to go back to Saipan and from there, do their parasailing or banana boat tours.
The marine sports operators said that when they bring their customers to Managaha, Tasi Tours benefits from not only the landing fee but also from the money spent by tourists on food, massages, buying from the souvenir shops, and other commercial activities.
Matthew Smith, also representing the marine sports operators, said if DPL implements the proposed amended rules, they face another lawsuit from the very same operators.
These include Island Marine Sports Inc., Aquatic Marine Co. Inc., Automarine Inc., Seahorse Inc., and BSEA Inc.
Smith asked that the parties talk more about the proposed rule “or not implement” it ever.
Gordon Marciano of PDI said if tourists are not given the flexibility with their activities, they will not come back and go instead to the next destination. In the end, the whole CNMI suffers.
Yesterday's hearing at the House followed a lengthy meeting of the representatives of the parties involved with the House Natural Resources committee chairman. The parties hope that after their Thursday meeting, they will be able to find common ground
Rep. Ray Yumul (Ind-Saipan) said the law authorizes the Legislature or its committee to order DPL to hold a public hearing on its proposed rule.
“I would like to thank chairman Palacios for acting swiftly on this looming situation. On the eve of DPL's implementation, all we're asking is to come together first and see how we could help our tourism industry. We're fighting over rules that really shouldn't be amended,” Yumul told Saipan Tribune.
Also at the committee hearing were Reps. Ray Tebuteb (Ind-Saipan), Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan), and Speaker Eli Cabrera (R-Saipan).