Department of Commerce officials are on a fact-finding mission to develop and enforce regulations to curb the growing issue of illegal tour operators in the Commonwealth with sometimes questionable vehicle and liability insurance policies that business leaders believe do not adequately protect tourists and could harm the image of the CNMI’s vital and only industry.
Commerce Secretary Mark Rabauliman told Saipan Tribune a working group has been formed to promulgate these rules, in light of a recent law to have tour vehicles register with the government. He said they aim to publish the rules sometime by mid-to-the-end of February this year, with an intent to carry out a “full media blitz”—like with their work on a previous alcohol and tobacco campaigns—to disseminate information to the public of “what’s written in the law.”
“It’s nothing personal,” Rabauliman said. “It’s just the law.”
Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Alex Sablan calls these operators “rogue.” He believes the issue comes down to protecting the CNMI’s tourists from illegal or smaller operations that don’t have the capability of carrying heavier or larger insurance policies.“…Certain companies have very little liability insurance and cap out very quickly and families are left holding the bag,” Sablan told Saipan Tribune.
Government agencies that are responsible for business licensing and providing these individuals the ability to operate should make sure there is sufficient liability insurance in the Commonwealth for tour operators, Sablan said. Secondly, the government needs to develop certification of tour guides so that guides “know how to operate, know the history of the Commonwealth, its flora and fauna,” so they can tell “the right message consistently.”
“It seems to me that there are no regulations that dictate what type of tour company can even start here,” he said. “…It’s all about protecting our No. 1 industry and making sure our tourists are being taken cared of both from a tourists standpoint and heaven forbid—on the possibility that someone gets hurt or injured—that there is some insurance that can cover that.”
Closing the loopholes
On the word “illegal,” Rabauliman said it’s sometimes the matter of having regulations and laws in place with “some not informed, as they need to be.” He said they are trying to close these “loopholes” to ensure all business activities conform and comply across the board.
“So that there will be no misinterpretation,” he added.
Closing these loopholes could mean a clear definition of “what is a tour company or a tour operator is?” or “what is a taxi” or “what is grounds transportation” and things of that nature, Rabauliman explained. “We just need to have a clear definition so that way every regulator agency will be using the same definition.”
For Sablan, it’s also about “maintaining the follow up.” “It’s been known that companies take on some policies and [then] they cancel the policies—whether it be vehicle or liability—just to get a business license.
“With some of these insurance companies you can pay monthly, quarterly, semi-annually. So these guys get the policy and they cancel it or lower the threshold and nobody has a reporting aspect for that,” he added.
On vehicle insurance, Sablan does not understand why there appears to be “no connection” between the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and insurance companies. “When somebody cancels a policy, that should be an automatic red flag to BMV and BMV should follow up with that tour operator—whether it be a tour operator or a local vehicle. That’s a significant liability for the Commonwealth.”