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Coronavirus outbreak bad for tourism

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THE outbreak of the novel coronavirus has significantly affected the CNMI’s only industry — tourism, Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands chairwoman Gloria Cavanagh said on Tuesday during a forum hosted by the Marianas Visitors Authority at Saipan World Resort.

“The impact is huge,” she said, especially for “the hotels that rely heavily on the Chinese market.”

She said, “It’s not the fault of the airlines — this is a natural process, something beyond our control,” and it was the Chinese government that imposed travel restrictions on its nationals, she added.

Marianas Visitors Authority Managing Director Priscilla Iakopo said following the coronavirus outbreak MVA implemented measures to make up for the anticipated downturn in Chinese arrivals.

She said they revised MVA’s marketing proposals for their promotional and marketing offices in Japan and South Korea — the CNMI’s two other major tourism markets.

But Iakopo said they will continue promoting the CNMI in China so that once the coronavirus outbreak has been contained, China arrivals will increase again.

Right now, she said MVA is “communicating on a daily basis with our China office to ensure that all information released in China is also shared with us.”

Commonwealth Ports Authority Executive Director Chris Tenorio, right, with Marianas Visitors Authority board chair Marian Aldan-Pierce, MVA Managing Director Priscilla Iakopo, Cathy Perry of Integrity Communications, and MVA Deputy Managing Director Judy C. Torres before the start of the forum on coronavirus at  Saipan World Resort, Tuesday.

MVA marketing manager Thomas Kim said they received an “emergency notice on prevention and control of coronavirus infections and the suspension of the business activities of tourism enterprises” on Jan. 26 from China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

For fiscal year 2020, MVA was expecting 167,103 arrivals from China, which is now the CNMI’s second largest tourism market.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Kim said 6,218 of the 7,147 advanced bookings from Jan. 28 through Feb. 15 have been canceled.

For FY 2020, the CNMI could lose a total of over 40,000 Chinese tourists, he added.

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, in a separate interview, said although tourism is the driving force of the local economy, “we cannot compromise the health of our community.”

He added, “It is important that we take care of public health first.”

The decline in Chinese arrivals, he said, also shows the importance of the Japanese and other tourism markets to the CNMI.

“That has been a priority of this administration — to diversify our tourism,” he added as he expressed appreciation for MVA’s partnership with airlines, hotels, and other tourism stakeholders.

“We are closely working with them to protect our public’s health here and our tourists’ well-being and to prevent the virus from reaching and spreading in the CNMI,” the governor said.

Torres said his office is also communicating directly with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other federal agencies.

Protocol in place

During the forum on Tuesday, a Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. official said a protocol is in place to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in the CNMI.

In addition, Warren Villagomez, CHCC-Public Health and Hospital Emergency Preparedness Program director, said there will be ongoing coordination and communication between government and non-government entities, including with the airlines and other stakeholders of the tourism industry.

If there is an airline passenger who may have an infectious disease, the pilot will relay the information to the Saipan airport tower, which will then contact the Centers for Disease Control quarantine station in Honolulu, Hawaii, Villagomez said.

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, second left, with other panelists during the Marianas Visitors Authority’s forum on coronavirus at Saipan World Resort on Tuesday.  Photos by Junhan B. Todiño

On the ground, he said, airport fire rescue and CHCC personnel will secure the potentially infected passenger once he or she arrives at the Saipan airport.

“The required assessment will be made,” he said, adding that the airport has a quarantine and isolation facility.

Villagomez said CHCC is in communication with federal authorities to better identify suspected cases and prevent an outbreak in the CNMI.

Governor Torres, for his part, emphasized the importance of sharing the right information with the community.

The acting chief executive officer of CHCC, Subroto Banerji, said with the help of CDC, “we are learning more about the transmission of this virus.

CHCC director of medical affairs Dr. John Tudela said they are focused on individuals who may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus.

“It is very important to look into a person’s travel history,” he added. (See related stories in today's edition's Regional News section.)

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