MVA wasting your money then, MVA wasting your money now

Two things happened since we published my editorial arguing for the defunding of the Marianas Visitors Authority:

  1. I realized I completely forgot about MVA’s stupendous waste of your money on its failure of a “travel bubble” program with South Korea in 2021.
  2. MVA announced its upcoming stupendous waste of money on yet another junket to Japan and Singapore to participate in familiarization tours that will bring a whopping zero tourists to Saipan, Tinian, or Rota. (Okay, zero is an exaggeration; but not by much).

Let’s start with the junkets.

On October 20, MVA announced its tours of Singapore later this week, and then Osaka during the weekend for trade shows and conventions. Funny how the Osaka trip coincides with the splendor of autumn in Japan.

That’s right folks, your money will be spent on the airfare, pricey hotel accommodations, lavish meals, and other perks of junketeers to attend trade shows that are fast becoming obsolete in the new world of the independent tourist. The people at MVA know this, or at least they should. But does that matter? Of course not. The Commonwealth Legislature just wrote them a $4 million blank check in the Fiscal Year 2024 budget despite audited financials from FYs 2020 and 2021 that show MVA’s business model is completely out of whack.

MVA’s management discussion and analysis in the combined audit (this is the section where the audited agency gets to say its peace) brags about Ralph Torres’ Council of Economic Advisors (pretty sure there’s a line of global market economists wanting to hire them) coming up with the Tourism Resumption Investment Program (TRIP). So catchy.

You know what TRIP did? It took $15 million in federal pandemic funds for a travel bubble program with South Korea. That is on top of about $460,000 MVA set aside for a pre-bubble familiarization tour of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota by a few travel agents.

MVA’s management discussion and analysis makes the claim, “It took a while for the program to gain speed but visitors arrival began to rapidly increase in September 2021.”

MVA loves to brag by percentages. ‘Visitors arrivals up 136 percent in September,’ one newspaper published as its headline, clearly from an MVA news release. But 136 percent of what? If I drank one glass of water today, and I drank two glasses of water tomorrow, I would have increased my water consumption by an additional 100 percent.

The truth can better be explained with the numbers. MVA and Mr. Torres’ Council of Economic Advisors used $15.5 million of your money so they could bring a whopping 5,365 total tourists to the CNMI in Fiscal Year 2021, which ended on September 30, 2021.

A total of only 69,642 tourists visited the CNMI the following fiscal year, when the Covid travel restrictions by and large were lifted and the travel bubble no longer was needed.

The CNMI government essentially spent $2,900 on each of the 5,365 tourists who visited Saipan. Just like the BOOST program, imagine if the government instead divided that $15 million by the population of the CNMI and gave every man, woman, and child in it a stimulus check. Would have been a $300 payment.

Yet MVA thought it was a great idea; a responsible use of public funds. This is the same MVA to which the legislature entrusted another $4 million. It is the same MVA packing its suitcases to go on another junket.

It is the same MVA that supported the travel bucks program, that straight up loaded debit cards with federal pandemic cash and gave it to these few tourists to spend at select locations. Corporate welfare at its finest.

The Torres administration and MVA weren’t ashamed at all. In fact, former finance secretary David Atalig, Jr. was quoted in the Saipan Tribune bragging about it.

“Keep in mind that the travel bucks program is funding that can only be spent on the islands. It was issued in a form of a prepaid debit card that they can only be used at hotels and establishments here,” Atalig said.

What, they said? Can only be used at hotels “and establishments here?” I wonder how many of those establishments – just like those hotels – are represented on the board of the MVA that decides how millions of dollars in hotel occupancy tax is spent. How many of them are vested interests in MVA’s sister racke—, er, organization, the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands (HANMI)?

Is it such a leap in logic to connect all these players to their not-so-coincidental outcry against the Palacios administration’s pivot against Chinese tourism and investment? Does it surprise anyone many of these same powerful interests tried their darndest to keep Ralph Torres in power?

These powerful interests only will remain powerful if the public gives in to the rackets they’ve been fomenting for decades by being silent to the status quo. These powerful interests know the gravy train came to a full stop when Ralph Torres squandered all that federal money on them.

Guess where they’re turning – and who they are willing to sacrifice – now that that well has run dry.

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