BOB BONE'S TravelPieces  

A real hot spot!

Bikini welcoming tourists instead of atomic bombs

By Robert W. BoneA Bikini Divers T-Shirt

MAJURO, Marshall Islands -- The Republic of the Marshall Islands is one of your larger independent nations in the Pacific.

Well, it's not really large, of course. But this democratic republic does spread itself over 750,000 square miles of open ocean. It embraces more than 1,200 islands grouped in scattered chains of low-rise, coral-based atolls, and sports a population of only 60,000 living on narrow strips of flat land totaling about 70 acres.

Majuro, the capital of the Marshalls, is a five-hour jet ride from Honolulu on Continental Micronesia Airlines.

Part of that vast section of the Pacific called Micronesia, the Marshall Islands separated from American trust territory administration a decade ago. Today it is one of those modestly endowed nations that have pinned hopes on the commercial possibilities of (you guessed it) tourism.Marshallese school children

``Our first big problem, of course, is that people don't know where we are,'' said Danny Lee Muno, president of the Majuro Chamber of Commerce, with a shrug. Muno talks of beautiful deserted islands and colorful corals. Nevertheless, the Marshall Islands historically has had a poor hand to play in the high-stakes touristic game. Today, however, it holds one trump card. Its name is Bikini.

Sure enough, the radiation clouds of the 1940s and 1950s have blown away, and you're now allowed to go to Bikini, if you really want to. Moreover, you have to come here to Majuro first to do so.

Not counting sport fishermen and the cruising yacht crowd, the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii has traditionally held attractions for two main groups of American travelers -- first, the World War II buffs, and second, that mysterious sub-marine culture composed of avid scuba divers. Divers seem to travel as far as they can afford to in order to search out still more settings to marvel at the world beneath the sea.

Until recently, these peripatetic explorers have been hopping to more dramatic destinations in the Pacific like Palau and Truk. These and other islands offer some beautiful fish and coral experiences along with enough war rubble below and above the surface to also satisfy devotees of military history.

But Bikini was strictly out of bounds. The skinny atoll that had a bathing suit named after it became a household word when the American military moved about 150 Marshallese off, filled its large lagoon with leftover war materiel and then set off almost two dozen atomic bombs to see what would happen. Not too surprisingly, the ships all sank, radiation set in, and the area was declared uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.

Well, the future is here. Believe it or not, Bikini is reached every Wednesday afternoon by flights on Air Marshall Islands, or AMI, whose headquarters are here on Majuro. Dive parties of a dozen live for a week in apartments on Bikini, apparently safe from radiation -- at least as long as they don't eat any coconuts or bananas from outside their front door. No fishing is allowed, and all food and drink is flown in on AMI. Days are spent diving on approximately 60 sunken ships in the lagoon.

Marshallese women, who go about their chores wearing long, modest dresses, might wonder if anyone has noticed that Bikini has now probably seen its first bikini.

Some of the ships reached by sport divers in the Bikini Lagoon are famous. This is the only place in the world where they can dive onto a genuine aircraft carrier. After a distinguished war career, the USS Saratoga was sunk there as part of the atomic tests.

``You only have to go down 70 feet to get to the conning tower,'' enthused Bob Herkes, a new resident of Majuro. Herkes came out from Hawaii to direct the food and beverage operation at the new Outrigger Marshall Islands Resort. Now an avid scuba enthusiast, he wears a sport shirt sporting the bright emblem of Bikini's Operation Crossroads, which shows palm trees waving cheerily against a mushroom cloud background.

Herkes said expert divers can descend to reach the flight deck and even deeper, where there is still enough light to inspect ghostly airplanes, bombs, and other weapons that have remained intact on the vessel for 50 years.

Nearby, another famous ship is also asleep in the deep. This is the Japanese battleship Nagato, the command ship for the 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. You can swim into the watery wardroom where Admiral Yamamoto is said to have uttered those prophetic words, fearing he had ``awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.'' Other ships to which you can dive include the battleship Arkansas and the submarine Pilotfish.

Symptomatic of the Marshall Islands' resolve to capture international tourists, whether they go on to Bikini or not, is the recent whirlwind creation of the Majuro's only first-class set of accommodations, the government-owned Outrigger. Using some radical new construction methods, the 150-room hotel mushroomed to life in a few short months specifically for a single important function -- the annual meeting of the South Pacific Forum.

The forum is a cooperative group of nations dedicated to helping its less-fortunate members to be all that they can be. In the Marshalls, for example, Japan has committed itself to improving the roads, and Australia helped set up the police force.

Over the years, the Marshall Islands president had been asked several times to host the forum, but he reluctantly declined, since he had no place to put up the large delegations, including several heads of state. In 1996, however, he crossed his fingers, said yes, and so the hotel was built. The convention is now over, and the hotel is looking for new business.

At the same time, the Asian Development Bank has sent out consultants to help the islanders set up the Marshall Islands Visitors Association, which is considering how to promote the islands.

One thing missing is simply a lack of support facilities for tourism. Not counting dive operations, organized tours, for example, are practically nonexistent.

``We have one guy here who built a World War II-style landing craft out of spare parts,'' said Muno. ``It's ideal for taking groups on picnics to deserted outer islands. At the moment, he doesn't charge anybody anything, and he often invites perfect strangers to come along.'' No one is really quite prepared yet for a genuine tourist invasion, much less an explosion, in the Republic of the Marshall islands.

 

SIDEBAR:

IF YOU GO . . .

 
From the United States, it is generally most practical to reach the Marshalls via Hawaii. Flights to Majuro from Honolulu are run by Continental Micronesia Airlines on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. For information, call 1-800-945-9955.

If your travel agency has trouble making arrangements to visit the Marshalls, you could start by phoning the islands direct. The Majuro Chamber of Commerce is at 011 692-625-3668. Dive tours in the Marshalls and those from Majuro to Bikini are run by Robert Riemers Enterprises, 011 962-625-5131. Be sure to check out the time difference, and remember that the Marshalls are across the International Dateline.

Continental Micronesia's Web site is at http://www.flycontinental.com/q1/micro/micro.html, and an unofficial but surprisingly detailed Marshall Islands Web site can be found at http://www.clark.net/pub/llaack/rmi