DLNR, MVA, BECQ continue discussions on tourist impact management of Grotto

As discussions continue regarding the tourist impact management of the Grotto, the Department of Lands and Natural Resources (DLNR), the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality (BECQ), and the Marianas Visitors Authority (MVA) have decided to implement a ticketing station for entrance to Grotto and fully enforce tour operator certification.

According to Secretary of Lands and Natural Resources Anthony Benavente, a public announcement regarding ticketing will be issued out to the general public soon. He added that the Grotto User Capacity Survey is still ongoing and preliminary results were discussed between the agencies.

“Majority of survey respondents have suggested a trial limit of 20 to 40 people in the water at the Grotto at any one time. This is to be adjusted over time based on our rangers observing how well this number accommodates users, while addressing public safety concerns. However, we are still seeking more input from the Department of Public Safety Boating Safety, other first responders, and our dive operators. Access for photo opportunities was discussed and could be allowed at a designated time when divers and snorkelers are not so prevalent. It was found that rangers could control entry at the top of the stairs, allowing people to descend in groups of two, only allowing the next pair to descend once the first pair reached a certain point safely beyond,” Benavente said.

Secretary Benavente noted that the user capacity survey results are not finalized and encourages members of the public to continue to provide their input.

MVA Managing Director Christopher A. Concepcion noted that MVA procurement has made some improvements to the specifications for an upgraded entrance gate to Grotto. Construction is expected to start within the coming weeks.

DLNR, MVA, and BECQ agreed that the user fee should be under the control of DLNR with infrastructure improvements and litter control coordinated between the three agencies.

Acting Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality Administrator Eliceo Cabrera expressed that the consumption of food and beverages will also be prohibited to curb further littering.

“In our experience with maintenance under Parks and Recreation, we have seen an increase in littering. The positive thing is that these recommendations from the surveys will go far in lessening tourist impact,” Cabrera said.

Secretary Benavente added that it was agreed that it would be beneficial to utilize a ticketing system along to control traffic, with each visitor being provided with an informational brochure describing Grotto’s rules and regulations before entering. He shared that the MVA is also creating a safety booklet which will be translated and distributed to tourists when they arrive at the site or through the tour operators.

Tour Operator Certification Program

MVA noted that the tour operator’s certification program began on Monday, October 23 at the Northern Marianas College with positive numbers. The program’s courses are offered through a staggered schedule to accommodate tour operator schedules.

“NMC and MVA will work together to make sure agents are in compliance and classes will be offered quarterly for new operators,” Benavente said.

Concepcion said that the tour operator manual is nearly complete and that a digital version will be made so course materials will be continually improved and to reflect future revisions of rules and regulations.

The certification program will be offered in several modules each ending with an aptitude test that will cover DLNR, BECQ, and MVA regulations and enforcement requirements.

“The program is currently ongoing with the first batch of registrants already starting courses. As of Monday, we have 113 individual tour guides and 22 tour operators. We are very thankful to NMC for their flexible scheduling and for accommodating operational schedules,” Concepcion noted.

Concepcion underscored the significance of the program because it will allow MVA and the CNMI government to efficiently regulate the CNMI tourism industry for years to come.

“As our tourism industry continues to grow, it is the goal of MVA and this administration to improve the quality of our tourists. Attracting more quality tourists can only be done when we have certified tour guide operators and government regulators who can better educate our visitors on our island’s unique and world-class environmental resources,” he added.

As proposed under draft regulations, individual tour guides will also be required to provide police and traffic clearance. The application fee for individual tour guides is $50, and tour guides will be required to display their badges when conducting tours. The certification will be valid for three years unless revoked or suspended, and the badge must be renewed every year.

Enforcement and next steps

DLNR and BECQ will schedule a joint enforcement meeting with all agencies that have rules and regulations governing tour operations and customer conduct. MVA will begin construction of the gate within the coming weeks, while DLNR will meet with dive operators to discuss night time access to Grotto and ticketing with the CNMI Treasury under the Department of Finance.

To provide feedback for the Grotto User Capacity Survey, log on to http://gov.mp/2017/09/11/public-input-sought-for-grotto-user-capacity-survey/ or https://goo.gl/3vDJiC.

For more information on the tour operation certification program, contact MVA tour guide certification manager Kuen-Hee Han at khan@mymarianas.com or 664-3200.

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