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Together, we can safely reopen tourism to jumpstart our economy

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We can’t emphasize enough how the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. and the Governor’s COVID-19 Task Force have done a great job in establishing protocols that allowed the CNMI to manage the pandemic, save lives, and motivate us to work together in getting our economy back up and running.

Our economy relies heavily on tourism. With ongoing uncertainty with this crisis, we must work on a roadmap for the safe resumption of the critical and only industry in the CNMI.

The Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers, through its Tourism Resumption Blueprint, offers a pathway that recognizes the threats associated with increased arrivals into the CNMI and places the safety of its residents and visitors as its foremost priority. The blueprint recommends implementing enhanced safety protocols—testing upon arrival, quarantine, and reporting and monitoring of visitors—educating stakeholders about the rapid response for containment, and creating travel bubbles.

E-Land Group, which operates Kensington Hotel Saipan, Pacific Islands Club Saipan, and the Coral Ocean Golf Resort, made the first attempt at a travel bubble when it proposed to charter flights to bring tourists from Korea to Saipan to safely vacation within the three E-Land facilities.

The travel bubble is still subject to approval by both the CNMI and Korean governments. Its provisions, along with the other recommendations under the Tourism Resumption Blueprint, will have to be revisited to reflect the current status of the crisis on our islands.

A realistic resumption plan must be driven by all tourism stakeholders working together to ensure the CNMI is ready to fully reopen. Last Monday, Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, who is GCEA co-chair, met with health officials, hotel and airline representatives, tour operators, the Marianas Visitors Authority, Commonwealth Ports Authority, and other local and federal officials and discussed the blueprint. They raised challenges on the implementation of the plan and gave their insight about how to approach the roadblocks and make it most beneficial for everyone.

The long but substantial dialogue led to the formation of the Tourism Resumption Task Force, which will be co-chaired by CPA chairperson Kimberly King-Hinds and MVA acting chairperson and Hotel Association of the NMI president Gloria Cavanagh.

Herd immunity

A recent American Hospitality and Lodging Association survey showed that leisure travel is expected to return first. The survey also indicated that the vaccine’s wide distribution may play a critical role in “reigniting larger leisure travel.”

During Monday’s stakeholders’ meeting, a hotel official said one of the first questions travelers often ask when inquiring about their trip is the vaccination rate or the herd immunity of the destination. Travelers are also interested in low reported infection numbers. At the same meeting, CHCC CEO Esther Muña noted that an 80% or higher vaccination rate is ideal to begin easing restrictions and create a “new normal” for how we interact with one another.

According to Ms. Muña, 25% of the Commonwealth’s population who qualified for the vaccine have been completely inoculated, and 33% have received their first dose. As of March 29, our infection numbers are still low with 159 total cases. CHCC will be ordering more Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccines, which will help the CNMI reach its 80%target rate for herd immunity by June.

This means that tourism would resume only when it is safe to do so—when there’s herd immunity (#VaccinateCNMI) and a clear indication of a diminished threat of infection to residents and visitors.

Going back to work

We often say that “Tourism is Everyone’s Business,” but we might overlook what that means. In reality, it means that our businesses—restaurants, construction, hotels, and our local government—succeed because of tourism. Tourism revenue is our primary source of income. When the COVID-19 pandemic halted tourism arrivals, the CNMI became, much like many people in our islands, essentially unemployed.

Federal assistance has played a tremendous role in bringing relief, but we know it is temporary. For the good of our islands, we have to go back to work, bring back the lost livelihoods, and provide workers and their families the means to survive by safely reopening our doors to tourists.

TOGETHER, WE CAN welcome visitors back safely. TOGETHER, WE CAN have a golden opportunity to rebuild the tourism industry to better than it was before.

For more information, visit the GCEA on Facebook and Instagram (@cnmigov.economy) or contact them at gceacnmi@gmail.com.

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Mike Sablan is vice president of Triple J Enterprises, Inc., a certified public accountant, and chairperson of the Domestic Policy and Recovery Committee of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers. As an advisory council for Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios, the GCEA’s mission is to improve the quality of life in the CNMI for all residents.

MIKE SABLAN

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