The Saipan Chamber of Commerce continues to rally behind the combined efforts of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (D-MP) in resolving immigration and labor issues in the CNMI.
Chamber president Velma Palacios gave this assurance, saying this is a critical issue for the CNMI since tourism is the Commonwealth’s main source of revenue.
“Our economy relies on this as we continue to grow our tourism industry. [The Marianas Visitors Authority] continues to report that our tourism arrivals from China, aside from Korea and Japan, are increasing,” she said.
Torres met with President Trump on Tuesday last week at the White House while Camacho’s bill, H.R. 339, is currently awaiting action at the U.S. Senate after passing the House early this year.
Visitors from China, Korea, Japan, and Russia enjoy visa-free travel to the CNMI. The Chinese and Russian markets enter the CNMI via the parole system while Japan and Korea enter via the visa waiver program.
Since 2014, visitor arrivals in the CNMI continue to increase. That number surpassed the 500,000 mark from January to December in 2016. Recent statistics released by the MVA for the month of February showed that arrivals jumped by 21 percent or 57,320 compared to 47,281 in the same month last year.
“We continue to support the governor’s efforts to bring the CNMI’s critical issues to Washington D.C., especially the China [entry] program,” Palacios said.
Palacios said the increasing tourism numbers translate to job opportunities for all. “We have seen an economic growth in the CNMI—more tourist arrivals, hotel occupancy increasing, new businesses and investments being opened. This all translates to more job opportunities for our residents. The [tourist entry] program is essential for us to sustain our economy and secure its continued growth.”
MVA managing director Chris Concepcion, in an earlier statement, said they had made great strides in promoting the CNMI as a prime destination for the Commonwealth’s key markets.
Their aggressive marketing campaign had resulted in the highest number of visitor arrivals in the CNMI in more than 10 years. “This year, we look to build on that progress by enhancing our unique resources to attract untapped, high-yield markets.
Concepcion, however, added that infrastructure also needs to be addressed, particularly the Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport. “Our airport is the first and last thing our visitors see, so it remains critical that we come together to address its issues.”
“We thank our partners in the airline industry for their continued partnership as we steer our tourism industry in the right direction. Without them, there would be no tourism industry to speak of.”
Workforce is another area that the Chamber is closely monitoring. “We [also] continue to support the efforts being done by Gov. Torres and Delegate Sablan in addressing our workforce requirements under the CW-1 program,” said Palacios.
“As businesses, we continue to hire and train qualified U.S. applicants. With the growing economy, we still need more workers from our foreign labor force.”
HR 339, Sablan’s bill, would give temporary relief if President Trump signs it into law before the fiscal year ends. The CW-1 cap was breached early in fiscal years 2016 and 2017.
HR 339 aims to increase the numerical cap to 15,000 and would also raise the education fee for each approved CW permit of a foreign worker from $150 to $200, with the funds going to training of U.S. qualified workers.
“We would continue to monitor the situation. Whether it gets approved or not in the Senate, we’re going to work with the administration in finding a long term solution to this issue,” said Palacios.
Torres, on Tuesday (Wednesday in the CNMI), met with Trump and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus at the Oval Office where he informed the President of the importance of the CNMI visa and CW-1 programs.
He said that Trump assured that he will assist the CNMI in all of its immigration and labor concerns.
“The President has assured me that he will make sure our economy continues to grow so we can continue to address our challenges and provide more economic opportunities for you and your families,” said Torres, who also met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.