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This Pacific Island Is Caught in a Global Power Struggle (And It's Not Guam)

The islands of Yap are at a crossroads. Should they stay aligned with the U.S., drift toward China, and/or open up to widespread development?

On a hot summer’s day in Yap, a crowd gathers in the island’s capital for the annual Homecoming Summer Festival. First a handful of curious tourists arrive, at the printed starting time, followed by a slow trickle of locals, who adhere to the more lax code of “island time.” Finally, as the long shadows of late afternoon sun fade into the evening darkness, the show begins.

One by one, the men of Yawur Village—from children to chiefs—make their way across the lawn in stoic fashion. They are all dressed in traditional attire of coconut leaves, flowers, woven loincloth (or "thu") and lathered in turmeric and coconut oil. Standing with their woven baskets before an eager audience, the long line of men is illuminated by a string of yellow floodlights and the setting moon. The dance they are about to perform is one that has been passed down for centuries, and a crowd favorite.

This year’s Homecoming Summer Festival commemorates Yap’s 30th year as a member of the Pacific Asia Travel Association’s (PATA) Micronesia Chapter, an organization working to encourage responsible tourism in the region. This also comes at a crossroads in the island community’s history, as they wrestle with critical questions about how to move forward. Should they maintain their traditional ways of life? Should they open the gates to large-scale international development? Or perhaps, should they craft a hybrid approach of the two?

This is a narrative that’s playing out all across the Pacific. Though some islands are further along in the storyline, Yap is hanging at a particularly crucial juncture in its history, caught between big development plans by Chinese investors and an uncertain geopolitical future with the U.S. (See how well you know Guam.)

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Yap’s Crossroads

Located in the western Pacific Ocean, Yap is one of the four member states in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). The 11,000 residents of Yap are spread across one main island and a handful of outer islands that are culturally and linguistically diverse. The mother tongue of main islanders and outer islanders are so different that English is used as the common language.

Socially, Yap is situated in a blended world of traditional and Western systems. It is one of the few societies that still adheres to a caste system while simultaneously upholding a democratic electoral process. In addition to the familiar branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—Yap also has a fourth branch of government known as the Council of Pilung (or Council of Tamol), which consists of the traditional chiefs, who regulate matters of culture and customs.

Yap’s tourism industry has traditionally been quite small, even by small island standards. The Yap Visitors Bureau has recorded approximately 4,000 annual visitors from outside the country, dating back to 2010. This is compared to the 160,000 visitors that visited the nearby island of Palau during 2015. To further put these figures into perspective, Hawai‘i, the most popular island destination in the Pacific, had over 1 million visitors in June of 2017 alone.

However, simply opening the doors to tourism does not guarantee success. According to Governor Tony Ganngiyan, the island’s biggest developmental challenges lie in its limited infrastructure: “We haven’t succeeded in putting in the needed infrastructure and facilities to open ourselves to the world market. Without that, it’s quite a challenge to us. We have limited capacity in our airport and port facilities, accommodation facilities, transportation services, etc.”

This, however, might not be the case for much longer. (Learn about Yap's efforts to combat plastic pollution.)

Chinese Investors Seek Development

Since 2011, the Exhibition & Travel Group (ETG), a Chinese development organization, has had its eyes set upon Yap’s shores as a potential tourism development site. They see the island as a great business opportunity that would yield mutual gain for the company and the residents of the island. It’s not hard to see why Yap would be desirable to Chinese investors: relative close proximity to China (4 hours by plane), unique cultural practices, and pristine natural beauty, to name a few. But perhaps the biggest draw is simply the fact that the tourism industry in Yap is so miniscule compared to that of other island entities in the area.

Still, the scope of ETG’s development plans has shifted significantly in the past few years. Early on, an official ETG prospectus proclaimed that “...Yap will immediately become one of the most famous tourism destinations after 4,000 units are built and up and running.” This included golf courses and a state-of-the-art convention center for major international gatherings. There were even talks of establishing a small gambling industry.

Such claims sparked public outcries on the island. After all, a resort of this scale might be enough to house the entire resident population of Yap.

ETG is no stranger to grandiose development. Over the past five years, the company has built the New Century Global Center in Chengdu (currently the world’s largest building) and the InterContinental Resort in Lhasa, Tibet. The latter was met with much resistance from the international community advocating for a free Tibet.

Tourism of this scale would almost certainly change the identity of Yap. On the one hand, the economic benefits are hard to ignore. The promise of jobs and better wages appeals to many, not to mention the extra income made from leasing land to developers (Yap’s laws prohibit the ownership of land by non-Yapese citizens). Many people in the government see these large-scale investment opportunities as the best way for Yap to get an infrastructural overhaul that would benefit everyone.

On the other hand, opponents of the plan see change from a sleepy island to a resort town as an irreversible curse. With maximum land leases being 99 years long, there is a feeling of permanence involved with each parcel of land signed over. Furthermore, the same factors that attract investors to Yap are the ones that some locals fear being permanently lost or altered: the quiet consistency of village life, the unique traditions and customs rooted in cultural values, and the relatively untouched ecosystems.

Year after year, the same challenging questions arise: do the proposed benefits outweigh the perceived costs? Do we even know what all the costs are? What alternatives are there?

Differing Perspectives

These days in Yap, the heated exchange over the “big resort” has quieted down. That’s because, for several years now, ETG held off on development plans in hopes of building stronger local ties, establishing trust, and waiting for more stability in policies surrounding foreign investment. Instead, they acquired an existing hotel—Yap Pacific Dive Resort—and leased an additional few hundred acres of land from different villages around the island. The company has since adjusted their development targets to 1,000 units, spread across a number of potential resort sites.

And yet, the shock of the initial plan seems to have rendered some in the local community wary. Officials are still divided over the development. The same goes for the traditional leaders of Yap (i.e. chiefs), who hold great influence over island affairs.

In an effort to gain a better understanding of their Chinese counterparts in the tourism industry, a handful of government officials, traditional leaders, and dance performers recently took a state-sponsored trip throughout various cities in China as part of a “cultural exchange tour.” What they thought of the experience has yet to emerge.

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Uncertain Future

Beneath the conversations about development and negotiations with investors flows a much bigger undercurrent, involving Micronesia’s relationship with the United States. After decades of receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and assistance from the U.S., several Pacific Island nations are looking at a fast approaching deadline: the year 2023. That is when the financial arrangement between the United States and Micronesia ends, meaning that these islands have less than six years to figure out an entirely new model of economic sustainability.

This agreement began with a complicated series of conversations and agreements—officially known as the “Compact of Free Association” (COFA)—dating back to the late 1960’s, between the Micronesian islands and the United States. Specifically, the COFA involves three Pacific Island nations: The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau. Under the compact agreement, the U.S. provides “economic assistance, defense of the FSM, and other benefits” in exchange for “certain other operating rights in the FSM” and “denial of access to FSM territory by other nations, and other agreements.”

This is reflective of the United States’ geopolitical intentions for the Pacific Islands over the past few decades: using the same islands upon which many battles were fought during WWII as a buffer between the U.S. and potential threats from Asia.

The protections and benefits provided in the COFA agreement have created pathways of opportunity for the people of these island communities through education, job creation, and access to healthcare. Notably, the majority of the national income of these island nations comes directly from the U.S. as part of its promise to provide “economic assistance.” With this funding, many physical structures and resources have been established, along with a myriad of programs and projects—some successful, some not. But what has become clearer now than ever is the system of dependency that has been developed under the COFA. Regardless of what the original intentions were, these islands are now undergoing an untethering process, with feelings of unease.

In the U.S., there remains official interest in renewing the compact, although there have also been calls to make changes in order to help the island nations achieve more self reliance, such as by placing funds into trusts.

But putting it more bluntly, Yap Governor Ganngiyan says, “The compact agreement is not the right way to sustain a government. To me, a U.S. subsidy channeled through layers of government doesn’t provide the needed incentives and mechanisms for human resources and economic engines to develop.”

Certain islands under the COFA, such as Palau, have managed to open up new market segments for tourism by welcoming Asian visitors—primarily Chinese in recent years, which have alarmed some Western geopolitical experts. Islands like Saipan and Tinian, on the other hand, have explored a variety of economic avenues, including the garment industry, tourism, and gambling.

This brings us to Yap, an island caught between a world of strong cultural values and a yearning for modern amenities. Here, policymakers and community members all seem to understand the need for Yap to transition to new sources of income. However, aside from ETG’s proposal for developing high end resorts, there aren’t many other offers on the table.

Sustainable Tourism?

During this year’s Homecoming Festival, amidst the showcasing of Yap’s vibrant traditional practices including chants, dances, arts, and sailing, keynote speaker Andrew Jones brought up the importance of “responsible and sustainable development.” A veteran of the hotel industry and the previous chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, Jones delivers a message that he hopes appeals to both the business-minded and cultural/environmental conservationists.

In his speech, Jones says he does not subscribe to the “If you build it they will come” philosophy, alluding to the idea that simply building a high-end resort will lead to an increase in tourism income. “This can tend to be a haphazard, short term, perceived quick fix. Very rarely is a quick fix good for the longer term,” Jones explains.

Rather, the idea of sustainable tourism has a much more holistic approach to development that goes beyond revenues and expanding infrastructure, he says. It also involves in-depth research, community-wide education, and transparent dissemination of information. (See another photo of traditional Yap dancers.)

Wisdom in the Basket

The Yapese have a common phrase: “wisdom in the basket.” This is in reference to the woven baskets that Yapese men and women carry around, containing all of their necessary belongings. Any meeting that occurs in Yap, whether formal or informal, involves the patient preparation of “chew”—a combination of betel nut, lime powder, betel leaves, and usually half of a cigarette—during conversation.

This process is slow, methodical, and can occur several times over the course of a meeting. The locals say that it is during this period of preparation when people take the time to carefully plan out their next words or actions. Therein lies the wisdom.

Perhaps this is why Yap is still contemplating the idea of large-scale tourism development without having fully entered the arena like their neighboring islands. The community is taking its time and patiently preparing what to do before finally committing to it, seeking wisdom in the collective basket.