United States Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), along with two other Senators, recently introduced Senate Bill 2395. Known as the “Explore America Act of 2018,” the bill would expand so-called “cultural heritage tourism” in the U.S. According to Schatz, this bill will be a big help for many people in Hawai‘i.
“Every year, Hawai‘i sets new records for tourism growth in our state, but for too many people, it doesn’t feel like that growth is helping small businesses, families, and young people who are looking to build a life in Hawai‘i,” said Senator Schatz in a Feb. 7 news release sent out by his office.“This bill is about returning control to the people who live in the places everyone else wants to visit. It gives local communities the chance to see more benefits from tourism, including better jobs, and it puts the story of Hawai‘i in the hands of our own residents. This is what international visitors and tourists are looking for–authentic experiences that tell a story and have a history. With this bill, we can strengthen what Hawai‘i has to offer, and make sure local people benefit along the way.”
The bill states that it will “authorize the provision of technical assistance under the Preserve America Program and to direct the Secretary of the Interior to enter into partnerships with communities adjacent to units of the National Park System to leverage local cultural heritage tourism assets.” In truth, the phrase “leverage local cultural heritage tourism assets” is a huge problem for anyone with any historical understanding of Hawai‘i.
I’ve written previously on this subject. “In Hawai‘i conservation and tourism go hand in hand to epistemologically and physically remove us from the aina,” I wrote in the 2009 Pacific Studies journal article “Land Agendas vis a vis a Makani Discourse.” “The backdrop for landscaping agendas in Hawai‘i also consisted of imagining Hawaiians along similar lines of consumerism and capitalism.”
While the relatively recent introduction of the term “heritage tourism” purports to make the “old” new again through representation of a better version of the old, these new “old” places are important to explore. Places like Lahaina were remade under the guise of “heritage tourism,” except that the history it purports to resurrect never actually occurred there to the degree that it is emphasized. The whole “whaling town” theme was largely created to sell hotel rooms in Ka‘anapali. Ironically, it’s the need by government and tourism officials to sell the visitor experience as “authentic” that’s at the root of the fabrications.
In 2016, Senator Schatz introduced the Native American Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience (NATIVE) Act. It passed both houses of Congress, and President Barack Obama signed it into law on Sept. 23, 2016. The goal of that act was to “Enhance and integrate native tourism, empower native communities, and expand unique cultural tourism opportunities in the United States.”
“There are the issues of nativeness and tourism,” I wrote in the Sept. 15 MauiTime article “The Case Against The NATIVE Act.” “Interesting that it is titled Sec. 5 Native American tourism and branding enhancement.’ Native Hawaiians fall under this section of Native American tourism–the crazy agenda to rewrite actual history. And also, we are not a brand and cannot be branded (Although it does say the cultures should fit within the national brand of the U.S.)! This section is almost too Disney-like to comment on.”
The NATIVE Act is like a cartoon of nativeness. It reinforces long-standing confusion around the word “native,” as associated with the “welfare discourse” introduced by the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921, and away from Native Tenant understandings in the Hawaiian Kingdom. The NATIVE Act also encourages tourism in areas “too difficult to access or are unknown to domestic travelers and international tourists.”
In response to what can be construed as clear infringement on protected places, I remarked that the bill would promote “Every place and all parts of culture open to the possible destruction of mass consumerism. In essence, no place is sacred or worth protecting, every place is open for intrusion.”
And now it’s much worse. The whole phrase “Explore America” supposes that all people and places will be willing co-participants in this exploration. If places are unsure of inclusion, then perhaps “providing financial assistance to gateway communities to support outreach and promotional efforts,” as the bill notes, will ease the indecision.
To be honest, the term “gateway communities” was new to me when I first read the bill, so I had to look it up. It simply refers to any communities that are close to national parks. The bulk of this legislation suggests ways to partner with these “gateway communities:”
In General—The Secretary shall, to the extent practicable, offer to enter into partnerships with gateway communities to leverage heritage tourism assets to strengthen local economies and create jobs in the gateway communities with the goal of establishing a standardized framework for partnerships throughout the System, including through
(1) providing financial assistance to gateway communities to support outreach and promotional efforts;
(2) providing technical assistance to gateway communities based on Service best practices in tourism development and visitor management, such as—
(A) inventorying tourism resources in the gateway community;
(B) identifying historic heritage and cultural resources;
(C) engaging collaborative partners and stakeholders;
(D) designing community outreach and participation strategies;
(E) developing concept plans for trails, parks, historic resources, and natural areas;
(F) developing sustainable tourism development frameworks for community planning; and
(G) encouraging regional strategies for tourism development and promotion; and
(3) assisting gateway communities in accessing additional Federal resources available to strengthen tourism assets and support economic development.
After years of highly non-sustainable tourism, promises to develop “sustainable tourism frameworks in community planning” will sound like a great idea. But the overall tone is rather intrusive, especially with the goal of “establishing a standardized framework.”
This is like other state-sponsored practices that can only view culture through a lens darkened by bureaucracy: control the product to control the message. This legislation wants to make culture and tourism partners–as if the two could make a natural fit. The view here, that tourism saves culture, is actually what some will preach. The reality is that tourism usually tramples culture–Lahaina Town today is a perfect example–but there’s no money in recognizing that.
And who might make up one of these “gateway communities?” Do they include all communities next to national parks? U.S. National Parks are very diverse. There’s Pu‘uhonua o Hanaunau in Kona, Haleakala on Maui and the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial on O‘ahu.
How would a standardized approach fit the communities surrounding such different places? What if these communities are not “park ready” and don’t quite fit a seamless image of coming and going to and from the park experience? Will this bill extend help in these communities, with such things as affordable homes and funds toward schooling, to bring them up to whatever measurements are envisioned? In essence, will tourism give back to the communities it traverses through in real ways? Or is it simply an issue of being native enough?
Hawai‘i has a long and often conflicted history with conservation agendas, beginning with the Division of Forestry in 1903, to the broadening to the National Park System later. Today, Hawai‘i has the eleventh largest state-owned and natural reserve area in the U.S. The Bureau of Agriculture and Forestry began in 1892, a year before the illegal overthrow, and then grew rapidly to become the Division of Forestry. By the 1950s, the Territory of Hawaii set out to coordinate a Territorial Park System in order to “conserve and preserve valuable but rapidly disappearing historic sites, monuments, and scenic areas throughout Hawaii,” according to the Territorial Planning Office in 1959.
The office recognized that “open spaces” would help the newly forming tourism industry by providing unencumbered vistas. “Hawaii is fortunate in that it possesses not only many heiaus, historic monuments, and other cultural sites but she also possesses scenic areas which, in their natural unspoiled beauty, also represent a great potential economic resource as far as visitor satisfaction,” it stated in 1959.
In fact, a “Policy for Recreation” was written into Territorial law: “In these words by the President the recreation needs apply to the country as a whole and to Hawaii in particular are aptly expressed,” stated the policy. “The federal government recognizes its duty in this important field of public welfare by stressing recreational development through various federal agencies such as National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, etc.”
Land taxes were conveniently removed for large landholders that held Forestry land, as some of this land was private, but larger amounts were “Public Lands”–misnamed because they are the Government and Crown lands of the Hawaiian Kingdom, are thus not Public.
The American consciousness fostered in places like Yosemite and Yellowstone, where indigenous tribes were often violently removed from the land for the creation of National Parks, was transferred to Hawai‘i. Ultimately in the U.S., “with the aid of national parks, the history of the conquest of humans was transformed to the conquest of nature,” Roderick Neumann wrote in his 2002 book Imposing Wilderness.
Schatz’s legislation is backed by a history that not only empties these places, but silences indigenous knowledge in these environments, then promotes these same environments as spaces for travel and exploration. This in turn converts the surrounding populations into nothing more than “gateway communities” to something else–the National Park. In the process, we largely forget to question the reasons for the takeover and the ways in which it continues.
The “tourist gaze,” as described by sociologist John Urry, is fickle at best and destructive at worst. Ultimately, the commodification of culture is only good for those who make money from the consumption. Complicating the matter in Hawai‘i is the inconvenient political reality of U.S. occupation of Hawaiian Kingdom’s sovereign territory and nationality. Erasing the past takes dedicated and prolonged effort, and these latest attempts to make us forget historical reality by selling access to Hawaiian culture is only the latest act of this long performance.
Cover photo of Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park: Gillfoto/Wikimedia Commons