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The fourteen islands which form the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) has had an interesting and, at times, confrontational history. The first European visitors to the islands, in 1521, were Spaniards led by Magellan. Although the Spaniards concentrated most of their economic activities on the Island of Guam which lies to the south of the CNMI, the Marianas archipelago had a considerable strategic importance for the Spanish trading links in the Pacific, a role which it continued to enjoy as a Spanish possession through into the late 18th Century. Following the Spanish-American War of 1898, the island of Guam was ceded to the USA while the islands which form present day CNMI were sold to Germany. During the First World War, the islands were captured and occupied by Japan, an arrangement later confirmed by the League of Nations as part of the treaties which concluded the War. During World War Two, Japanese forces used the islands to launch an attack on Guam which fell in late 1941. American troops recaptured Guam and, subsequently the Northern Mariana Islands in 1944. The Islands remained under US administration for the remainder of the twentieth century and, in 1975, the population voted to become a territorial state of the USA with Commonwealth status and representation in the US House of Representatives.
As noted earlier in the CNMI guide, the strategic location of the islands has been of key importance to the various occupants of the islands. The first manifestation of this importance was the island’s use as a staging point for the fleets of colonial powers operating far from home ports. As aircraft became important for both civil and military use, the islands’ role adapted accordingly. Perhaps the most famous example is that the US airbase on Tinian was the final point of departure for the aircraft which dropped the first atomic bomb in 1945.
Today, three of the fourteen islands covered by the CNMI Guide are permanently inhabited. Between them, the islands of Saipan (the capital), Tinian and Rota have a total population of just over 50,000 with roughly 45,000 people living on Saipan. Many of the islands towards the north of the archipelago are, or have been subject to volcanic activity, with Anatahan being particularly active since 2003. One other notable geographic feature is the deepest point in the ocean – and therefore the lowest point on Earth – the Marianas Trench, over 11,000 metres below the surface at its deepest point, located to the South–East of the islands.
The industry and economy of the islands is discussed in more detail elsewhere in the CNMI guide. To summarise, however, while the Islands have a small agricultural sector and a more significant textile industry, the main industry of the Islands is tourism, which employs around 25% of the workforce and accounts for a similar proportion of the Islands’ GDP. The tourism industry suffered when Japan Air Lines ended direct flights in 2005, significantly reducing visitors from what had been the single largest source of tourist traffic. However, the beauty of the islands, particularly Tinian and Roti, continue to draw visitors to this Pacific island paradise.