Labor pains

Tourist arrivals to the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands surged 30 percent in 2017, helped by improved transport links and infrastructure, though labor shortages continue to plague the development of resorts on the islands.

In November, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it was scaling back the number of temporary foreign workers the CNMI is able to import, triggering warnings of dire consequences from local business.

USCIS in November set the CW-1 cap for fiscal year 2018 at 9,998—a reduction of 3,000 slots from 2017. The drop in the CNMI-Transitional Worker program came in preparation for its eventual expiry in 2019.

The local government has been lobbying President Donald Trump’s administration hard for a reprieve, as the CNMI does not have enough local labor to push through some of the large-scale development projects on the islands. The population of the CNMI is just over 52,000 with 90 percent based on the main island of Saipan, according to the CIA World Handbook.

The issue is yet another headache for Hong Kong-listed Imperial Pacific, which is building by far the biggest resort on Saipan.

The project has already been hit by numerous delays and by ongoing labor issues, including the discovery of hundreds of illegal workers from China on its construction site.

There is now concern the labor shortages may cause a further slippage in the August 2018 date set for completion of the resort.

The glitzy casino opened last year, though no other facilities are available.

CNMI gets China travel award

The Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands was named Best Island Travel Destination at the 4th Shenzhen International Tourism Expo in China. “We are extremely grateful to the 4th Shenzhen International Tourism Expo for selecting the Marianas to receive this award, which tells us we are on the right track as far as meeting the expectations of our visitors and giving them a memorable experience in our islands,” Marianas Visitors Authority managing director Christopher A. Concepcion was cited as saying by local media. Nearly 230,000 mainland Chinese tourists visited the Marianas last fiscal year, accounting for 35 percent of total visitor arrivals.

Brown quits IPI

Imperial Pacific International has confirmed the departure of its chairman, Mark Brown. The company, in a press release, said that he made the decision to retire from his current position to “pursue other projects closer to his family in the mainland United States. Mr. Brown’s leadership and expertise were a major contribution to IPI’s success,” said the company. Brown’s last working day for IPI was December 20, 2017.

“The biggest issue is the [lack of] workers,” IPI construction project director Eric Poon told the island’s casino commission. Poon said more workers were due to leave in December due to the CW-1 cuts for the 2018 fiscal year.

As of late last year, IPI had a total of 207 workers at the construction site, down from CNMI 291 a few weeks prior. “People have started leaving and their numbers are going down due to the CW issue,” he said. 

On neighboring Tinian, which has an estimated population of just 3,000, securing construction labor to move proposed projects ahead is even more vital.

“It is important to note that without the CW-1 program, it’s greatly impacting ['developers' interested in Tinian] in moving forward,” local lawmakers said in a joint statement.

Tinian Mayor Joey Patrick San Nicolas told local media that even if all U.S.-qualified workers on Tinian were to be employed, it would still not be enough to meet the three developers’ workforce needs.

“I think we all agree that one day, we will have the capacity for local, trained, U.S.-eligible workers that will fill all the positions required for there to be a viable casino or service-based industry in the Commonwealth, especially on Tinian, but we are not there yet,” he said, adding that both Tinian and Rota depend on CW-1 workers as both islands are on the “verge of development.”

There are currently three developers interested in a casino project on Tinian. Bridge Investment and Alter City are seeking to build new resorts, while Tinian Entertainment Corp has expressed an interest in reviving the Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino, which was shuttered in 2016 due to federal fines.

According to local media, it took about 1,500 workers to build the Tinian Dynasty, while 1,300 were needed for its operation. Tourism on Tinian, long hobbled by a lack of infrastructure and transport links, hit a major milestone in January with the completion of the long-delayed international airport terminal. The island welcomed its first direct flight from Hong Kong. The journey took about four hours and cut out the need to transfer from neighbouring Saipan.