Washington, DC — An internal review has found that most of the free first-come, first served passes for the USS Arizona Memorial are snapped up by commercial tour operators before visitors can obtain them, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The review panel concluded that the total absence of any “written policies, standard operating procedures or operational plans” governing ticket distribution created “ample opportunities for abuse” in which the availability of tickets is “determined primarily by demand from commercial tour operators.”
The USS Arizona Memorial is Hawaii’s most visited site, drawing nearly 1.8 million people per year. The USS Arizona’s maximum capacity is 4,350 per day, with visitors ferried to the sunken battleship in Pearl Harbor that holds the remains of nearly 1,000 sailors who perished in the December 7, 1941 attack. The National Park Service (NPS) operates the Memorial under a statute that forbids charging an entrance fee.
Early this year, NPS assembled a three-person team to examine the Memorial’s ticketing practices. They wrote on many days “very few first-come, first served tickets were available to visitors” under a system which park staff and others admit was not “transparent, fair and equitable.” Their report describes how –
- “The park has created a secondary market for the ticket inventory” in which tickets reserved for various purposes are corralled by tour operators and exchanged or resold with no controls;
- “Currently the Park does not track how many of the first-come, first served tickets are actually distributed to individuals and how many go to commercial operators. Neither does it track the breakdown between various commercial operators”; and
- “[T]here are no management controls in place for operations within the park gates. The reviewers reported a ‘Bazaar like’ atmosphere” as park staff “expressed concerns related to degradation of the visitor experience due to over commercialization and lack of control of the interpretive messages being shared with visitors.”
“The USS Arizona Memorial should be the last place you’d expect to be ripped off,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who obtained the report under the Freedom of Information Act, noting commercial tours cost between $50 and $130 per customer. “Reading this report makes clear how the moneychangers have reoccupied the temple.”
Despite these findings, the review team declared that its “purpose was not to investigate individual conduct” but did note several “allegations of misconduct reported during the review” including:
- “A number of interviewees believe that park staff and the park association (PHP) [the park friends group called Pacific Historic Parks] are involved in actions related to tickets that may be unethical” such as receiving “gifts from commercial operators”;
- “Some employees, both within the NPS and PHP, expressed fear of retribution for speaking out;” “[m]ultiple interviewees stated being told to ‘mind your own business’”; and
- NPS did release a “Corrective Action Plan” to address the “Deficiency Noted” that “Ticket Reservation and Distribution Practices are not in compliance from NPS Policies and Standards.” Many of those actions were slated for completion on June 30, 2014, although several remain under development with the notation that “June workshop are anticipated to impact some park policies.” In a press release issued right before the Labor Day weekend, the park posted the review it had released to PEER and announced it was “seeking your comments on ways to improve how reservations are made for the USS Arizona Memorial.” This announcement suggests no changes have been made.
“It is simply astonishing that the Park Service did not follow up on the acts of misconduct described in this report,” added Ruch, pointing out that the NPS identified no record of any disciplinary action but instead appears to be treating the situation as a breakdown in “internal communications” with team-building exercises, and making employees view a 30 minute “ethic video with a ‘site specific’ skit (i.e. ethical dilemmas most commonly experienced here).” “Inside the Park Service, accountability appears to be in much scarcer supply than free passes.”
NPS is still withholding from PEER an undated law enforcement “briefing statement… because it contains speculative opinions and allegations about job performance, behavior and/or activities of both NPS employees and individuals outside the NPS.” The agency also refuses to release “an administrative inquiry to assess the work environment at the park.” PEER has filed a formal administrative appeal seeking both documents.