SAIPAN – The central government will restrict the admission of visitors to the Grotto as soon as possible “even if we have to close it for three months,” acting Gov. Arnold Palacios said.

The “uncontrollable” influx of tourists to one of the designated conservation areas on Saipan has come to the attention of Department of Lands and Natural Resources and some lawmakers.

DLNR Secretary Anthony T. Benavente said the department surrounded a portion of the area with a fence in an attempt to regulate the entry of visitors.

For his part, House Minority Leader Edwin Propst said hundreds of tourists visit the Grotto – one of the CNMI’s most popular diving sites – every day.

Rep. Roman Benavente said he saw the “overcrowding” at the Grotto, resulting in “a lot of trash in the water and surrounding areas.”

When asked on Friday what can be done to address the situation, Palacios said: “The governor’s office can actually close it.”

He added “I’ve asked time and again, even when I was (still with) DLNR, to put up a gate to restrict entry. Unfortunately, there was a pushback in terms of policy and procedures and even in terms of who really has jurisdiction, whether it’s the Department of Public Lands or DLNR. At the end of the day, it does not really matter who has jurisdiction. We need to really manage the place.”

DLNR’s Division of Parks and Recreation is supposed to be responsible for maintaining the Grotto, but the Marianas Visitors Authority is also helping maintain it.

“Now, obviously, we need to put together a policy and everybody must agree to it because the time has come to really manage the place and we will get that thing done as soon as possible even if we have to close [the Grotto] for three months,” Palacios said.

Rep. Roman Benavente said he is working on a “comprehensive approach” to address the overcrowding at the Grotto. He has prepared a draft bill that would authorize DLNR to collect fees from tourists who visit the Grotto and other tourist spots such as Bird Island, Calabera Cave, Banzai Cliff, Suicide Cliff and the Last Command Post.

The lawmaker, who used to dive at the Grotto with the late Benki Concepcion, said employees of dive and tour agencies always end up diving for trash left in the water.

“The pristine waters of Grotto now have trash,” Benavente said, adding that other local divers like him believe that “something has to be done.”

DLNR Secretary Anthony Benavente said he and the acting governor will meet with DPL and MVA officials this week to discuss the situation at the Grotto.

“We were more or less trying to have it under control, but honestly somehow, it is not (yet under control), so we will fix it,” he said adding that he supports the idea of imposing fees on tourists who visit the Grotto and other tourist spots in Marpi.

“I support it very much and we are also trying to work with the Attorney General’s Office to implement the Grotto regulation. It is a designated conservation area,” he added.