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Northern Mariana Islands
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The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is a commonwealth in political union with — in short, close to a territory of — the United States. The islands are located in Oceania, between Japan, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea.
The first European in these waters was Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, who landed on nearby Guam and claimed the islands for Spain. Angry at larcenous naties, he first dubbed the them "Las Islas de los Ladrones", (The Islands of the Thieves), but in 1668 their name was changed to Las Marianas after Mariana of Austria, widow of Spain's Philip IV. Nearly all of the islands' native population died out during Spanish rule, but new settlers from modern-day Micronesia repopulated them to some extent. Sold to Germany from 1899, the Japanese took over in 1914 and turned the island into a military garrison. During World War II, the Marines landed on June 15, 1944 and eventually won the bitterly fought three-week Battle of Saipan.
Under US administration as part of the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific, the people of the Northern Mariana Islands decided in the 1970s not to seek independence but instead to forge closer links with the US. Negotiations for territorial status began in 1972. A covenant to establish a commonwealth in political union with the US was approved in 1975. A new government and constitution went into effect in 1978.
The economy benefits substantially from financial assistance from the US. The rate of funding has declined as locally generated government revenues have grown. The key tourist industry employs about 50% of the work force and accounts for roughly one-fourth of GDP. Japanese and Korean tourists predominate. Annual tourist entries have exceeded one-half million in recent years, but financial difficulties in Japan have caused a temporary slowdown. Currently, more Korean tourists go to the CNMI than Guam, while more Japanese tourists go to Guam than the CNMI. This change is reflected by a shift in airlines servicing the islands, with Korean Air and Asiana Airlines offering direct service to Saipan from Seoul, South Korea, while JAL and ANA offer direct service from Japan to Guam.
The agricultural sector is made up of cattle ranches and small farms producing coconuts, breadfruit, tomatoes, and melons. Garment production is by far the most important industry with employment of 17,500 mostly Chinese workers and sizable shipments to the US under duty and quota exemptions.
The northern islands of the CNMI are mainly populated by Caroline Islanders (a Polynesian group with origins in Kiribati), while the southern islands are populated by Chamorros. In recent years, the CNMI has allowed many migrant workers, and as the CNMI does not have the same minimum wage laws as the US (and are not obligated to because of their commonwealth status), many laborers work for very low wages (sometimes below $2/hr).
Tropical marine; moderated by northeast trade winds, little seasonal temperature variation. Dry season December to June, rainy season July to October. The typhoon, or hurricane, season lasts several months and starts in late August to early September.
Southern islands are limestone with level terraces and fringing coral reefs. Northern islands are volcanic.
While a part of the United States and US citizens can enter simply with proof of citizenship (usually a passport), the CNMI controls its own immigration and does not require US visas. Most visitors from richer countries will be granted a 30-day stay on entry, but citizens of other countries (listed here (http://www.mymarianas.com/html/display.cfm?sid=1021)) will need to apply for an Authorization to Board letter at least four weeks in advance.
The main international gateway into the Marianas is Saipan. There are frequent flights from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but visitors from the US will have to connect in Guam or transit through the previous countries listed.
There are no scheduled ferry services to the islands.
Scheduled flights on Continental Airlines connect Saipan to Rota, Tinian, and Guam. Three other islands have airstrips that can serve (expensive) chartered flights.
The CNMI has many WWII bunkers, which fall under the National Park Service as "War in the Pacific" parks.
The Marianas' top activity among Americans is scuba diving and snorkelling. In additional to the coral reefs you might expect, the waters around the islands were the scene of fierce fighting during World War II and there are many ship wrecks and even rusting tanks stuck on the seabed.
Many Asian (particularly South Koreans) visitors come to the CNMI for gambling (especially on Saipan, and to a lesser degree on Rota) and karaoke/hostess bars.
English is the official language and universally spoken, but 86% of the population also speaks the local languages Chamorro and Carolinian. Basic Japanese is also spoken by many in the tourist industry.
The CNMI uses the US dollar exclusively. The islands are fairly expensive due to their remote location, comparative wealth and the profusion of free-spending Japanese and Korean package tourists, so figure on at least US$100 a day for travel in any comfort (this being also the entry requirement). As in the mainland US, tips of 10-15% are expected.
While all American and Japanese favorites are readily available, local Chamorro food (or touristy versions of it) is also offered in speciality restaurants.
Saipan's accommodation options are concentrated towards giant package hotels. Rack rates are often ludicrous but heavy discounts are available, especially outside the Japanese holiday seasons.
Natural hazards : active volcanoes on Pagan and Agrihan; typhoons (especially August to November)