US Pacific Territory Wants to Balance Chinese Tourism With Security Concerns

Washington — The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, is the only place in the United States where Chinese nationals can enter without a visa for up to 14 days.

Security hawks in the U.S. Congress want to shut down the visa waiver program, arguing it is a backdoor for Chinese citizens to enter the United States. CNMI Governor Arnold Palacios was in Washington, D.C., last week discussing this issue with government officials. He sat down with VOA to share his views on the program and the economic challenges faced by his government. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

VOA: How important is tourism to your economy — and specifically Chinese tourism?

Palacios: Tourism is our primary industry. It is our economy, basically. The significance of Chinese tourism pre-pandemic, it was close to [nearly half] of tourists that come to the Commonwealth were from mainland China. So that’s our second largest market. South Korea being the number one market. The China market is a significant market for [our] tourism industry.

VOA: When you took over as governor in January 2023, were you already aware of the visa waiver program that was giving 14-day access to Chinese nationals?

Palacios: Yes. Those visa waivers were issued in 2005. And then it was adjusted down from 45 days to 14 days. The Commonwealth and [Customs and Border Patrol] in Homeland Security cut it down to 14 days. So that’s the existing visa system that we have for China.

VOA: Do you believe that this program is responsible for the volume of Chinese tourists that you get?

Palacios: Yes, I believe so.

VOA: So, members of Congress are worried that this is a backdoor to the United States, for Chinese spies to come into this country and do the U.S. harm. What is your opinion on closing the [visa waiver] program?

Palacios: In my inaugural speech, I explained and articulated why we need to wean ourselves from dependency on the Chinese market. We saw what happened in Palau. [Editor’s note: Palau’s president has suggested his country has suffered severe economic consequences for keeping diplomatic ties with Taiwan, citing a sharp drop in Chinese tourists, which once accounted for some two-thirds of visitors, but has since dropped to almost zero.]

That’s also a concern for people [in the] Commonwealth. We have [had Chinese] folks going from Saipan to Guam by boat, landing at Ritidian Point, which is the northernmost part of Guam … the closest point if you travel by boat. Ironically and coincidentally, that’s where our military bases are. That’s where Andersen Air Force base is. And so, yeah, there’s this reason to be concerned. Obviously.

VOA: Is there a middle ground to ensure that [CNMI gets] Chinese tourists and yet reassure the U.S. government that you can do it safely?

Palacios: They’re reviewing what is called EVS-TAP.

[It’s] a more robust pre-screening of tourists, by Homeland Security and [Customs and Border Patrol] to screen the folks that want to come to Saipan or the Commonwealth. And so it’s more robust than what we have today.

That program is under review or being drafted. We would like to review it also to make sure that that we also have a say — not to dilute the authority nor the robustness of the security part, but one of the biggest concerns that we have is we know that CBP is spread thin. It’s spread thin also in specific areas. And so we have personnel assets that could be trained to assist.

VOA: Has the Department of Homeland Security been receptive to that idea?

Palacios: We haven’t heard anything back regarding the status of that program or what are the rules for it, but if that program works, I think it will be OK.

VOA: Is there a revenue source to replace lost income from the Chinese tourism market?

Palacios: Not right now, so it’s very significant. We’ve had to make drastic sacrifices in government operations and public services. People are leaving the Commonwealth because of the depressed state of the economy right now, because of the major impact of losing close to half-a-billion to a billion dollars’ worth of economic activities.

VOA: Largely because of the loss of Chinese investment and Chinese economic activity?

Palacios: Right. We are a U.S. territory, but actually most of the economic investments come from the Asian countries and the Pacific. For the past 30 years, Chinese businesses have played a significant role in economic activities in the Commonwealth, and sometimes policies that were made, you know, 9,000 miles away, sometimes they forget that they need to look at it closer, and how it impacts the American community out [here.]

At the end of the day, we will make our voices heard to our federal partners, the agencies, and hope that they understand and hopefully craft a policy that is going to meet national security standards. And at the same time, not completely kill the economy in the Commonwealth.