Tourist flights between the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were interrupted at the end of November when the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program took effect, which prohibited visitors from the PRC and the Russian Federation from entering the CNMI visa-free.
Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, Congressional Representative for the Marianas Islands issued a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton yestgerday to address this issue. Representative Sablan’s letter reads:
I am writing to report to you an ongoing interruption of tourist flights between the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and to thank you for the assistance and support of the State Department in helping me to understand this situation and to take such actions as have been needed to ensure continuation of these flights, which are a most important part of the Commonwealth’s economy.
This interruption of flights began after November 28, 2009, the date the Department of Homeland Security assumed control of immigration in the Northern Mariana Islands under authority of the 2008 Consolidated Natural Resources Act (CNRA). At the same time, the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program, also established by the CNRA, took effect. Homeland Security had issued an interim final rule implementing the program in January, 2009. The rule, however, prohibited visitors from the PRC and the Russian Federation from entering the CNMI visa-free. This change of practice was of grave concern to the CNMI, which relies heavily on tourism and, increasingly, visitors from these two countries for millions of dollars in revenue.
Along with other Northern Mariana Islands officials and business people, I raised concerns about this rule and its economic impact with Secretary Napolitano, leading her to announce on October 21 that she would exercise her discretionary parole authority to allow nationals from the PRC and the Russian Federation to enter the Northern Mariana Islands for business or pleasure for up to 45 days. The Secretary’s directive was to take effect on November 28 to avoid any interruption in the flow of tourists into the Northern Marianas. Unfortunately, charter flights from the PRC did effectively stop on that date.
I was quickly alerted by the Marianas Visitors Authority, the CNMI government agency responsible for tourism, and by Century Tours, one of the private companies engaged in bringing tourists from the PRC to the Northern Marianas, and asked to help address the situation. In turn, I contacted the State Department to determine that all necessary communication had occurred between the United States and the PRC regarding the turnover of immigration responsibility in the Northern Mariana Islands and how that might affect visitors from China.
Your staff at the Bureau of Legislative Affairs immediately responded to my concerns. The Bureau confirmed that a Diplomatic Note, conveying the parole program information, had been sent to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing prior to November 28. The Bureau also promptly communicated with the US Embassy in Beijing, which then contacted Chinese Civil Aviation officials and the China National Tourism Administration. Chinese officials, it was reported to me, knew of no reason for the interruption in flight service and had confirmed that they were aware that entry to the CNMI remained visa-free.
The Bureau was also instrumental in facilitating communication with the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China here in Washington DC. This has proven most useful in the present circumstances and should lead to further fruitful exchange between my office and PRC representatives in the future. Because of the growing importance of the PRC as a trading partner throughout the world, but especially in the Western Pacific, I consider this to be a significant development.
In closing, Madame Secretary, although there are not yet flights with passengers to the Northern Mariana Islands from the People’s Republic of China, I am informed by tour operators in the Marianas that they will begin these flights on December 18. While I regret that there has been loss of income both to businesses in the Marianas and to businesses in the People’s Republic of China, I am heartened that there should soon be a continuation of regular flights.
I thank you again for the role your department has played I providing information and facilitating communication among all parties.