March 12, 2021
To say that the tourism industry, the major driving force for the CNMI economy, took a blow from the COVID-19 pandemic would be an understatement.
The industry was devastated! Visitor arrivals ceased, and a ripple effect of business closures, job losses, and plummeting revenues immediately followed. Residents who were still recovering from the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yutu were hit even harder by the pandemic. Many turned to food relief, rental assistance, and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to survive.
Last Saturday morning while driving along Beach Road, the pandemic’s impact on families was evident by the long line of cars waiting to get into the Garapan Fishing Base to receive food commodities made possible by the CNMI Office of Grants Management. I later learned that some patiently waited in line for three hours to get their food items.
We are deeply grateful to the federal government for providing us the much-needed support, but we know that pandemic aid will eventually stop, which is why we are acting now to establish a strategic plan for the CNMI’s economic recovery.
Navigating our way out of this crisis will require rethinking our priorities, exploring new ideas, and working together as fellow residents to effect change. When Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Lieutenant Gov. Arnold I. Palacios created the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers (GCEA) through Executive Order No. 2020-11, our mission was clear – to recommend a plan that would ignite strategic economic development in the CNMI and ultimately improve the overall quality of life for all residents. Co-chairperson and business leader Jerry Tan and local leaders gathered to work to analyze the state of the economy.
After a series of dialogues with public and private sector stakeholders, the Council then identified 13 initiatives that would serve as a roadmap toward the islands’ economic recovery.
GCEA started with the initiative to transform destination sites through its Public Private Partnership program. Support for this campaign has been overwhelming with 41 groups adopting 30 sites. More are stepping forward to help make the CNMI a world-class destination.
And while we wait to welcome visitors back safely, we can generate economic activity and recover some of the jobs and tax revenues that the tourism industry used to provide by capitalizing on the over half-a-billion dollars in federal funds available for pandemic and typhoon recovery-related projects. To get these critical projects off the ground, the Council is actively working with Gov. Torres’ cabinet to explore opportunities to streamline the permitting processes. Together we have identified a number of improvements that can be made without compromising the importance of safeguarding our environment, preserving our historical finds, and protecting our coastal areas. Fast-tracking steps in the process could mean that larger projects can get underway quicker.
The vulnerability of the CNMI’s tourism industry has been exposed when the pandemic struck. And while we call for transformational changes to ensure that we become more competitive in the global tourism market, we must also acknowledge the need to diversify our economy by welcoming new businesses and quality developers.
The GCEA’s recommendations range from short-term improvements as we are seeing in the PPP program to mid-and long-term projects that include universal garbage collection, a tourism roadmap, establishing a Commonwealth Economic Development Authority (CEDA), and institutional reforms on Rota, Tinian, and Saipan. The Council will be sharing these details and plans in the coming months.
There will be many challenges as we move forward that will certainly test our resilience once again. After battling two super typhoons, a pandemic, and a devastated economy, we realize more than ever that TOGETHER, WE CAN help our economy recover; TOGETHER, WE CAN transform our islands into world-class destinations; and TOGETHER, WE CAN provide a better quality of life for all of us.
Mike Sablan is Vice President of Triple J Enterprises, Inc., a certified public accountant, and chairperson of the Domestic Policy and Recovery Committee for the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers. As an advisory council for Gov. Torres and Lt. Gov. Palacios, the GCEA’s mission is to improve the quality of life in the CNMI for all residents. For more information, visit the GCEA on Facebook and Instagram (@cnmigov.economy) or contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.