Asian leaders flying home this week from a regional meeting with US President Bush in Chile might have looked down over the widely scattered South Pacific islands and believed they were flying over a US playground.
But judging by the swelling flood of Chinese tourists to these sunbathed islands, the Pacific is rapidly becoming a destination for Chinese tourism, fishing and investment. In July, China Southern started flying here twice a week from Shanghai. In October, China gave the green light to mass tourism in the Northern Marianas, granting approved destination status. On Jan. 2, direct flights are to start from Beijing.
"Almost every flight is full -- tomorrow night's flight is overbooked, Friday's flight is overbooked," said Tom Liu, the general manager of Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino, a US$150 million Chinese-owned investment on Saipan's next-door island. Speaking by phone from his hotel, which features Chinese dragon decor and a plush discotheque, Club de Macau, Liu said that with Chinese tourism doubling this year and expected to hit 50,000 next year, he predicted confidently: "China will definitely be our largest market."
Washed by warm Pacific breezes, these small volcanic islands have floated with the historical ebb and flow of world maritime powers: 350 years of Spanish rule, 15 years of German rule, 30 years of Japanese rule and now, 60 years of US rule.
But now, with Chinese tourism worldwide forecast to hit 100 million in 2020 -- a 10-fold increase in two decades -- the Tinian hotel is betting on China. Next year, it hopes to open for direct flights from China, a brand new US$23 million, 8,600-foot airstrip. Built by Americans, the runway is already being called "the Chinese airport" by residents.
China is emerging as an economic power in the Pacific, an area that covers one-third of the globe. Although populations are small, the mini-states of Oceania straddle crucial shipping lanes and valuable fishing grounds. The arrival of tourists, aid projects and investment signifies China's penetration of the Pacific.
"The Chinese will dwarf the Japanese in tourism and business," said Dirk Ballendorf, an American who teaches Micronesia's history here at the University of Guam. "I recommend that all my students study Chinese."
With a Chinese airline studying direct flights to Fiji, China's ambassador to Fiji, Cai Jinbiao, has said that China will be a major contributor to Fiji's five-year target of turning tourism into a US$1 billion-a-year industry.
In Tahiti, the China Travel Service, which is China's biggest tour operator, recently announced that it would invest nearly US$100 million in two hotels. French Polynesia wants to open tourism offices in Beijing and Shanghai and the local airline, Air Tahiti Nui, is studying starting flights to Shanghai.
Just the way 50 Guam residents of Chinese heritage waved Chinese and American flags to welcome the ships of China's navy, a Chinese minority across the Pacific is easing the way for spreading Chinese influence.
In the Pacific, the Chinese diaspora ranges from newly arrived illegal immigrants to middle-class Chinese who have acquired Pacific Island nation passports to local elites who are descendants of 19th century Chinese imported to work in plantations.
On Fiji, a nation long torn by ethnic rivalries, Chinese immigrants are becoming the new commercial class, displacing departing ethnic Indians. In French Polynesia, Robert Wan, a local businessman of Chinese origin, has won Beijing's approval to open a Chinese cultural center in Tahiti.