President Donald Trump has expressed support for the continued growth of the CNMI economy, according to Gov. Ralph DLG Torres following his meeting with the President at the Oval Office on Tuesday afternoon (Wednesday morning, Saipan time).
As recounted by Jason Osborne, the representative of the Office of the Governor in Washington, D.C., Torres met with Trump at 5:15pm Tuesday (7:15am Wednesday, Saipan time) at the White House and the meeting was witnessed by chief of staff Reinhold “Reince” Priebus.
Osborne accompanied Torres to the White House and he had a separate meeting with the deputy chief of staff to the president, Rick Dearborn, while Torres was with Trump.
“President Trump asked how the economy was in the CNMI,” Torres said.
The governor used the meeting to press for two issues critical to the CNMI economy: the continued implementation of the parole-in-place that allows Chinese visitors to the CNMI and the need for the CW program to continue, as the need for labor is critical to the economic success of the CNMI.
Trump and Priebus reportedly committed to working with Torres.
“I told the President that there is continued growth and progress in the last few years and that the economy continues to grow,” Torres said in his response to Trump. “We need your assistance Mr. President with the Chinese visa waiver program.”
According to Torres, Trump immediately turned to Priebus, and said: “We need to do what we can to continue the economic growth in the CNMI. Take care of my friend.”
Priebus told Trump that work has begun to help address the need to strengthen the CNMI’s economy, with the Chinese parole-in-place being a critical component.
Many infer that the ability of Chinese tourists to enter the CNMI without a visa refers to a visa waiver program. In truth, of all the tourists that enter the CNMI, only the Japanese and Korean tourists are able to do so under the visa waiver program; they only need to show their passports. Chinese and Russian tourists enter under the parole-in-place authority of Customs and Border Protection officers.
Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands president Gloria Cavanagh could still remember the lean years that the CNMI experienced a decade ago: tourist arrivals were down, economic activity was slow or stagnant, business closures, and people were leaving to find jobs in other places.
She said CNMI officials should continue to ask top leaders in Washington D.C. that the visa programs, parole authority and visa waiver, should continue for the Commonwealth’s survival. “The importance for the growth and survival of our only economy is reliant on the continuation of these programs.”
“From 2007 through 2011 we had visitor arrivals of less than 400,000 annually. During these times we experienced closures of many businesses and an exodus of many of our people that had to leave in order to find work elsewhere,” Cavanagh told Saipan Tribune.
The CNMI’s lowest point was in 2009 where gross domestic product hit -17.5 percent. The economy, however, slowly recovered behind a revitalized tourism industry and was at 3.5 percent in 2015, based on the last year’s data reported by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Cavanagh joins the rest of the community—business, private, and government, etc.—in welcoming the great economic turnaround the CNMI has made with the help of the Chinese tourism market, which is one of two main sources of visitors for the Commonwealth, along with Koreans.
Chinese outbound travelers made a huge jump from 7.1 million in 1995 to over 133 million last year, a close to 200 percent increase buoyed by gains by the world’s second largest economy. More than half of outbound Chinese tourists are millennials who are looking for other destinations and to experience new things.
Cavanagh said hotel occupancy continue to increase, as can be seen in the last four months, with the influx of Chinese travelers. “Currently, the CNMI is enjoying hotel occupancy rates of over 90 percent the last four months.”
“Without [China], we would be expecting occupancy rates in the 60’s. It was not too long ago when we saw these kinds of numbers. It is just recently where our arrivals hit over half a million,” added Cavanagh.
Cavanagh welcomes the efforts of Torres in letting key officials of the Trump administration know about the CNMI’s situation.
“It is very much an honor for us to have Gov. Torres meet with our new President. I trust that the governor was able to present our concerns regarding the parole-in-place for the China market,” she said.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (D-MP) welcomed Torres’ meeting with the President as it would help efforts in finding solutions to critical issues that affect the CNMI. “Gov. Torres called me early [Tuesday] evening after his meeting with the President.”
“Chinese tourists make up the second largest market in the Northern Marianas and I support the governor’s efforts to maintain our access to that market.”
Torres’ trip was part of the administration’s continued efforts to air the CNMI’s concerns regarding immigration and labor. Seeking support in continuing to attract Chinese tourists was one of the purposes of his meeting with the President.
Trump even remembered Torres for being the first governor from a U.S. territory that supported and endorsed his candidacy in last year’s elections.
“This is the first governor to endorse me; he is a long-time friend,” the President greeted Torres upon entering the Oval Office.
Torres’ meeting President Trump is unprecedented, the first time that an sitting U.S. President has opened the doors of the Oval Office for a territory governor.
Separately, Osborne disclosed that on Wednesday (Thursday, Saipan time), he will meet with Department of Homeland Security and White House senior policy advisers “to reiterate the importance of Chinese [tourism].
Following the White House meeting, Torres met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinkie.
“Today is just an amazing day for us. We also met with Interior Secretary Zinkie and he assured us of his support to the CNMI’s initiatives to sustain its growth and development,” Osborne separately said.
The governor extended his invitation to the interior secretary to visit the CNMI. Zinke accepted and committed that his office will now work on the details of his schedule for his impending visit.
Zinke is expected to visit the CNMI this summer, the second time that a highest federal official has visited the islands in 10 years. Then-Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne visited Saipan in 2007.
MD: Gov. Torres meets with President Trump on visa programs fro CNMI