The Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) economy is showing signs of recovery as the islands move further away from the Covid-19 pandemic.
And one tell-tale sign of the economic bounce back is the number of new businesses opening as records from the Department of Finance showing that there has been uptick during the past year.
From October 2021 to September 2022 (fiscal year 2022), there were a total of 8,367 licenses issued; from October 2022 to September 2023, there were 8,613 - an increase of approximately 246.
"This is a positive indicator of economic recovery post-Covid," Finance Secretary Tracy Norita said.
Of 8,613 total licenses issued in fiscal year 2023, a total of 4,667 applications were received (multiple licenses can be processed under one application): 741 were new, 3,529 were renewals, and 387 were amendments.
In its breakdown of licenses by industry in both fiscal years 2022 and 2023, Finance disclosed that real estate, rental and leasing were on top, followed by retail trade.
One such new business is Shoes Outlet, which opened last September along Beach Road in Garapan.
Owner Henry Liang said he opened Shoes Outlet after seeing first-hand how the island community struggled to find affordable and good quality footwear when international brand Payless ShoeSource closed in 2018.
Reynaldo Faustino, meanwhile, said he opened Bistro On The GO last Sept. 15 at the Northern Marianas College to serve as an oasis of food in otherwise barren food scene in the CNMI's only community college.
Kantos Diyes also welcomed diners last month with a promise of serving usually hard-to-find regional dishes from the Philippines.
Owner Dante Suarez Conlu said Kanto Diyes is a marriage of Ilonggo and Cebu cuisine as Conlu and his wife hail from those regions of the Philippines, respectively.
"We come from the Visayas in the Philippines and we know for a fact that a lot of our kababayans (countrymen) miss authentic dishes from that region so we've come up with a restaurant that serves authentic Ilonggo and Cebuano food," he said.
And it's not only the small- to -medium-sized companies that are spreading their wings as even South Korean conglomerate E-Land Group has opened a new high-end bakery right in the heart of Saipan's tourist district.
E-Land Group chief executive Brian Shin said OHAS Boulangerie & Café heralds a new chapter in the company's journey in the CNMI.
"In 2011 we landed in the CNMI with a dream of becoming a key member of the community and grow together and I believe our dream is still ongoing," Shin said.
"But we felt that we still need more effort from our end as much as we need the support from the community.
"We very much trust the bright future of the CNMI and that is the reason we continue to invest here. I think this bakery in Garapan is definitely one step closer toward our dream," he said.
Tourist arrivals up
Visitor arrivals to the CNMI grew 80 percent to 19,731 visitors in October 2023, compared to 10,934 visitors received in October 2022, according to the Marianas Visitors Authority.
However, the islands' tourism body said the October figure is still 43 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels of October 2019, when arrivals reached 34,670 visitors.
In October 2019, 58 percent of total visitors were from Korea and 34 percent were from China.
In October 2023, only seven percent of all visitors are from China, underscoring the need to further expand the Marianas' source market mix to increase arrival numbers and revenue generation.
Visitor arrivals from Korea registered 16,374 visitors in October, 82 percent higher than October 2022.
The Marianas received 375 visitors from Japan in October 2023 compared to 230 visitors in October 2022.
Overall, the number of outbound Japanese travellers is still 57 percent lower than pre- pandemic levels - one million in September 2023 compared to 1.7 million in September 2019.
China arrivals in October 2023 reached 1,289 compared to 21 arrivals in October 2022. Prior to the pandemic, China was the second largest source market of visitors to the Marianas with numerous direct flights a week.
Most visitors from China are now free independent travellers transiting via Seoul and Tokyo to the Marianas.