CHANGE IN THE NMI — WELCOME, UNWELCOME AND OTHER
It had been a few years since I was last on Saipan and I wasn't sure what to expect when we headed there in late May to gather information for this issue's Country Report. We have certainly kept abreast of, and reported on, the NMI's economic problems. The economy there is, after all, still adapting to the loss of a billion-dollar garment industry, a drop in tourism since the pullout of Japan Airlines and the federalization of its labor force. That is not to mention the impact of events outside of the NMI's shores — the global economy, the March 11, 2011 disasters in Japan, for example.
However, I offer here a few random, subjective observations, more positive than negative, and, I think, indicative of the changes taking place in the NMI.
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- More of the local workforce seems to be in evidence at hotel desks, in retail stores, in restaurants, at gas stations, as office workers. This is a result, I imagine, of the impact of both the rise in the minimum wage and the new immigration regulations.
- I remember being unimpressed in the past with Saipan restaurants — for the most part they offered satisfactory fare, but were seldom anything that would draw me back to an establishment or that I would even bother to tell friends about. So I was pleasantly surprised at the improvement in offerings, including a couple of particularly imaginative appetizing meals in the style that is loosely referred to as fusion.
- I'm not sure it is a change, but despite the problems, people who live on Saipan seem to really, really like it. During interviews and casual conversations the phrase (or one like it) " but it's still a great place to live," often followed a chronicling of the economic and political challenges. Residents of a range of ethnicities talking about life on Saipan used words like "beautiful" and "friendly" with surprising regularity.
- The expansion of the tourist market is for real. Signs and brochures directed at visitors are written in Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Russian and workers of those nationalities are on the job in the visitor industry. And, as we report, Chinese and Korean investment in particular is one of the positive economic signs.
- The abandoned garment factories are a rather somber reminder of what had been. It seems a shame that they sit unused, but as yet no one has come up with a workable plan for them.
- There are a surprising number of buildings that might best be described as strip malls (though most are two stories) and with them a surprising number of small businesses, though the spaces are far from full.