Carrying with him a renowned and trademark message of environmental stewardship, Palau president Tommy Remengesau acknowledged yesterday the universal problem of growing island economies attempting to maintain the balancing act of controlling impacts as they try to increase revenue.
â€œItâ€™s a common challenge every time you promote tourism,â€ Remengesau told reporters during a press conference yesterday afternoon at the Hyatt Regency Saipan. â€œTourism being the main industry.â€
The president noted the tendency for promotional groups to concentrate heavily on their respective goals but that, at the end of the day, it came down to a matter of â€œbalancing outâ€ markets, as one market can easily overtake anotherâ€”â€œif there are no precautionary matters in place.â€
â€œWe all realize the value of the Chinese market,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s very aggressive. Itâ€™s coming in, and itâ€™s a good thing. But every time it grows to a situationâ€”where it seems to be a sole provider or the sole marketâ€”then thatâ€™s not a healthy thing.â€
Remengesau addressed Palauâ€™s recent cut down in Chinese charters flights to the island nation. He said Palauâ€™s tourist numbers would have hit 200,000 touristsâ€”numbers that heavily tax their infrastructureâ€”if they had not taken this route. â€œPalauâ€™s sewer system is made to cap at about 200,000 to 300,000,â€ said the president. And as they are still undergoing improvement and renovations to these, they â€œcouldnâ€™t afford to reach that maximum ceiling.â€
Still, even with the cut-downs, the nation still reached a record high number of 160,000 touristsâ€”about 20,000 more than last year, he said. Palau is looking at new source markets, he said, like the European and North American market and travelers from Russia, Japan, and Korea.
â€œThroughout the history of the Micronesia and the region, weâ€™ve seen it happen,â€ Remengesau said, where the region â€œrelied too much on Japanâ€ and â€œitâ€™s bubble burstâ€ and â€œeverything fell flat.â€
The region has â€œlessons to learnâ€ from this, he said. â€œâ€¦You donâ€™t put all your eggs in one basket.â€
The president also addressed the exit feesâ€”reported to about $50â€”that Palau charges on tourist leaving the nation. He called this an important position to take to ensure they get â€œthe right quality of tourists.â€
â€œWho respect the environment and are willing to pay the environmental impacts fee,â€ he said, noting that these fees help fund their protected area networks. The idea is, if they protect their marine protected areas, they protect the reason tourists come to Palau.
Common challenges and casinos
Remengesau also met with Gov. Ralph DLG Torres yesterday to talk about the CNMI and Palau playing a major role in the region. He called issues faced by the CNMI, Guam, and Palau sometimes unique to each respective island but there were still domestic and regional challenges that they share. â€œBecause we can have limited revenues, we can certainly tackle these problems efficiently by sharing our ideas,â€ he said.
â€œSaipan is going through a challenge of not having enough contract workers to accomplish many of the construction projects. This is absolutely a similar situation in Palau. We have a lot of construction activities, a lot of capital improvement projects that are not being done on time because we donâ€™t have the labor force to complete them. We have a unique and common problem.â€
On the topic of casinos, Remengesau shared with Torres the fact that some of Palauâ€™s congressmen have been on island to look at what Saipanâ€™s casino and gaming license has done to improve the islands, he said, calling this information critical to understand â€œthe realityâ€ of the industry.
â€œA couple of years ago, Congress sent their representatives here to look at the casino legislation that Saipan was entertaining and since then it has been enacted into law and now we see the company here doing businesses,â€ he said. â€œFrom what Iâ€™m told, there is employment happening and there has been some good, immediate impact as a result of that investment being issued a license.â€
Still, it would be up to the people of Palau if casinos were to be allowed in the nation, he said.
â€œWe have taken a referendum and the message was very clear. But itâ€™s not say the issue would come up again.â€
â€œUnless I know more about it, I continue to take the stand that Palau is not ready for it,â€ he added.
Remengesau said investments that are arriving on Palau are geared toward ecotourism such as snorkeling, diving, and bird watchingâ€”which is showing a surprise uptickâ€”along with water sports and catch-and-release programs.
â€œEcotourism seems to be a main target. As you know, we donâ€™t have a casino. Thereâ€™s no casino allowed in Palau. We donâ€™t have a golf course. Itâ€™s really just the natural beauty of the environment right now that is the main attraction for people.â€
On his environmental message to world leaders, Remengesau said, â€œResponsibility is the key word.â€ â€œWe are born to an island community that is blessed with the natural environment. But with it comes the responsibility to also care for it and to make sure we leave it the way it is as we found it.â€
This is a matter of culture, traditions, and customs. â€œWe are taught in our younger years that we have to respect the environment.â€
â€œThis is not something new that you have to legislate. Itâ€™s actually a tradition,â€ he said. â€œMerely putting that into a policy by law is reinforcing the culture and the tradition of the land.â€
Palau leads participating island nations and territories in the Micronesia Challengeâ€”where participating members are tasked with setting aside 30 percent of their near shore resources and 20 percent of their terrestrial resources for conservation by 2020.
Palau has instituted the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, which is 80 percent of its total exclusive economic zone.
The president said the latest statistics show that every member still needs to reach their target to accomplish that goal. This includes Guam, the CNMI, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. â€œEveryone has made progress but I still think there is some things left to do to reach that target.â€
Remengesau also stressed the need for a genuine partnership with their â€œclosest friendâ€ the United States.
Asked if the nation would balk at military training similar to the large-scale proposals planned in the CNMI, the president said they would welcome training with U.S. Coast Guard patrols, marine surveillance and environment, and aerial surveillance satellite monitoring.
â€œBecause those are mutual benefits,â€ he said.
As Palauâ€™s marine sanctuaryâ€”roughly 600,000 square kilometers and roughly the size of France or the state of Texasâ€”theyâ€™re biggest challenge is surveillance and enforcement. If water ocean exercises were conducted jointly with their small marine enforcement, it could be a â€œwin-win.â€
â€œWith one patrol boat and three small in-shore patrols, Palau finds it difficult to cover that whole area, Remengesau said. â€œThis is a situation where Coast Guard and U.S. Navy vessels could play an important roleâ€ in surveillance that would help stop illegal fishing and even illegal contraband.
â€œLord knows whatâ€™s being also transported in those cargoes,â€ he said.
Brought to the topic of the CNMIâ€™s own Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, he acknowledge â€œextensive resourcesâ€ would be needed to realize its potential.
â€œI think the CNMIâ€”by itâ€™s relationshipâ€”is a lot closer to the U.S. to be able to forge an effective partnership. For us, the available technology is very important. You need satellite-monitoring technology, more than really the hardware.
â€œWe have enacted laws to take those pictures and present them in court as evidence. You donâ€™t really need to catch those vessels red-handed. You can use those satellite picturesâ€ as evidence to prosecute.
Remengesau also visited hundreds of students yesterday at the Pacific Islands Club during the Marianas Tourism Educational Council event, to further the environmental message.
â€œVisitors need to feel like they are safeâ€ and at home to experience culture and beauty of the islands. â€œThatâ€™s something we have to plant in the minds of our students as early as possible,â€ he said. â€œThatâ€™s the island culture.â€
He came away pleased to see the event focus on range of fifth grade to senior high school students. â€œWe donâ€™t need to wait until they are older to instill these valuesâ€ on the importance of protecting oceans and tourists, he said.