The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is a commonwealth in political union with (and in practice, close to a territory of) the United States. The islands are in the Micronesia region of the Pacific Ocean, between Japan, the Philippines, and Palau.
The earliest settlers in the Marianas chain are thought to have descended from the Malay race and to have migrated from the Malay peninsula via Indonesia or the Philippines. Early Chamorros were farmers, fishermen, hunters, and built their houses on large stone pillars known today as "latte stones" (a few of which still exist on Tinian and Rota).
The first European in these waters was Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, who landed on nearby Guam and claimed the islands for Spain. Not content to claim the land, the Spanish also helped themselves to whatever else happened to be lying around. The natives responded in kind, helping themselves to tools and other items from Magellan's ships. Angry at this, Magellan first dubbed the islands "Las Islas de los Ladrones", (The Islands of the Thieves), but in 1668 their name was changed to Las Marianas after Maria Anna 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Negotiations for territorial status began in 1972. A covenant to establish a commonwealth in political union with the U.S. was approved in 1975. A new government and constitution went into effect in 1978. The Marianas are self-governing with locally elected governor, lieutenant governor, and legislature, but the United States government handles defense and foreign relations. Local residents are U.S. citizens by birth but do not pay federal taxes or vote in the presidential elections, instead they elect a non-voting representative to the U.S. government.
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. Air service is now offered from most major Chinese cities as well (including Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou).
The agricultural sector is made up of cattle ranches and small farms producing coconuts, breadfruit, tomatoes, and melons. Garment production used to be the largest industry, but the last garment factory closed in early 2009.
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.
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.
The CNMI was federalized in November of 2009 and now adheres primarily to U.S. international travel codes and restrictions.
While U.S. citizens can enter simply with proof of citizenship (usually a passport). Visitors from all U.S. Visa Waiver Program countries will be granted a 30-day stay on entry. Citizens of other countries should check visa conditions as certain accommodations are currently being made during a transitional period .
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. Occasionally yachts, cruise ships, or military vessels stop in port for a brief visit.
Scheduled flights on Cape Air/Continental Connection connect Saipan to Guam several times a day and Rota 4 times a week. Freedom Airlines offers twice daily flights to Guam via Rota, in additional to a more frequent Tinian service. Three other islands have airstrips that can serve (expensive) chartered flights.
Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino runs a ferry service from Saipan to Tinian and back.
The CNMI has many WWII bunkers, which fall under the National Park Service as "War in the Pacific" parks. There are also memorials on the northern end of Saipan to the Japanese soldiers and civilians who feared capture by U.S. forces and committed suicide by jumping from the cliffs into the ocean.
English is the official language and universally spoken, but 86% of the population speaks a language other than English at home, including the native languages Chamorro and Carolinian. Basic Japanese is also spoken by many in the tourist industry. Tagalog, Chinese and Korean are also used widely.
The Marianas' top activity among Americans is scuba diving and snorkeling. 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 Tinian), and karaoke/hostess bars. Saipan has a thriving (but illegal) prostitution industry, most of the workers being from China or the Philippines.
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.
Major credit cards are accepted at most retailers and restaurants. On Saipan, the major banks, and some restaurants and stores all have ATM machines. Bank of Guam has branches on Tinian and Rota, complete with ATMs.
While all American and Japanese favorites are readily available, local Chamorro food (or touristy versions of it) is also offered in speciality restaurants. Filipino, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Italian and Mexican dishes are also widely available. Most of the hotels have expensive but good quality restaurants, especially Hyatt Regency in Garapan, Aqua Resort in Tanapag, and Pacific Islands Club in San Antonio.
The main beers available in Saipan establishments are Budweiser and Miller products, usually sold in bottles only. However, a few places do serve Fosters or Victoria Bitter on tap, and a few have Miller Lite on tap as well. Other brands widely sold are San Miguel (Philippines), Tsingtao (China), Sapporo (Japan, bottled in Canada), and Corona (Mexico). Plenty of stores on Saipan have low-priced, good quality wine available, and there are plenty of harder drinks as well as mixers available everywhere.
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. Cheap motels are few, hostels are nonexistent, and camping is not recommended due to security concerns. Options are even more limited on Tinian and Rota.
Northern Marianas College is Saipan's community college option, and they have satellite campuses on Tinian and Rota. Public and private schools are also available for children from preschool age to high school.
U.S. citizens can work freely without needing a permit; however citizens of most other nations need a permit from the Department of Labor. Most businesses prefer to employ Filipinos, and also citizens of Thailand, China, South Korea and Bangladesh. The minimum wage is $4.55 per hour.
Natural hazards : active volcanoes on Pagan and Agrihan; typhoons (especially August to November).
Crime : people have reported their cars being broken into in Saipan's tourist areas, and some people have also had their apartments or hotel rooms burgled. Don't leave valuables lying around and use common sense when walking around tourist areas, especially at night. That said, Saipan is safer than a lot of other destinations, with muggings and other violent crimes against tourists being extremely rare.
The Commonwealth Health Centre is Saipan's overburdened and understaffed public hospital. There are also many excellent but expensive private clinics. The Seventh-Day Adventist clinic is noted for their dental care and vision centre. Health care on the other islands is scarce.
Veneration of the elderly, ancestors, and departed family members is a large part of Chamorro culture. Always give respect to the older people in the room.
The Northern Marianas are part of the North American dialing plan. The country code is 1, and the local area code is 670.
Mail is handled by the U.S. Postal Service; the state code is MP and the postal code is 96950. The main post office branch is in Chalan Kanoa, other branches are in Capitol Hill as well as Tinian and Rota. Most hotels can send mail for you. DHL and FedEx also offer courier services.
Internet access is widely available. The top level domain for the Northern Marianas is .mp.