The superintendent of the USS Arizona Memorial has reversed his stand on the diversion of “walk-up” tour tickets — which are supposed to be free — for sale to commercial operators. Paul DePrey now says the practice, carried out over a period of about seven months, was in fact against National Park Service policy.
DePrey was asked Thursday whether the sale of the tickets was proper and legal.
“I believe so,” DePrey said.
On Friday, however, he called the Honolulu Star-Advertiser to say he was mistaken.
“When I made the decision (to sell the tickets), I thought it was proper and legal,” DePrey said.
But after reading a front-page story about the ticketing controversy, DePrey said he didn’t want to give the impression that he still thought the ticket sales were aboveboard.
“We stopped the program because I learned that I made a mistake,” he said.
As a result of a National Park Service investigation into the ticket sales, DePrey said he was told by officials that the practice violated park policy.
“And immediately after learning that, we stopped the program,” he said, adding that was in January.
In response to the improper ticket sales and the investigation of them, DePrey said he put together a “ticketing team” that included park employees and National Park Service staff from regional and Washington, D.C., offices “to go through all of the items that were identified in the (investigation) to see what could be done immediately and see what we needed a little more data (on) to respond to.”
Three investigations of National Park Service management at the USS Arizona Memorial have been conducted in the past year and a half over poor morale, the ticket sales issue and, most recently, an ethics probe of the ticket sales, said John Landrysmith, a former park guide at the memorial.
DePrey, who is superintendent of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which includes the Arizona Memorial, said he couldn’t comment on whether any disciplinary action was taken because the park service doesn’t comment on personnel-related matters.
For about seven months the park service and its nonprofit fundraising arm, Pacific Historic Parks, diverted a portion of what were supposed to be free tickets given out at the door for tours to the USS Arizona Memorial, and instead sold those to tour companies for a fee, meaning fewer walk-up visitors could set foot on the national landmark.
Each day, 4,350 tickets are available for a short movie presentation and boat ride to the sunken battleship.
Managers pulled out hundreds of the walk-up tickets daily and sold them with an audio tour for $6 apiece to tour companies, according to Landrysmith and the results of the second investigation, which were obtained by the Star-Advertiser.
The cost was passed on to visitors paying for a commercial tour. Polynesian Adventure Tours, for example, charges $38.32 for an Arizona Memorial and “Honolulu city highlights” tour.
The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act prohibits the park service from charging a fee to visit the memorial.
Other tickets that are available for reservation online to tour companies and individuals are usually booked up well in advance.
Landrysmith, an Iraq combat veteran and interpretive park guide at the memorial for three years, said he quit in disgust in February after he complained about the walk-up ticket diversion to a manager and then was discriminated against for doing so.
“The hardest part about that, as someone who truly cared about my job and cared about why we were supposed to be there, when we ran out of (walk-up) tickets within 15 minutes to half an hour, to stand there for another eight hours and have to tell folks, ‘I’m very sorry, but we just don’t have any more tickets available,’ it broke our hearts,” Landrysmith said.
Recreation.gov, through which reservations can be made for a USS Arizona Memorial free tour, on Sunday showed the next available date for two tickets as being Sept. 2.
Dozens of tour companies on Oahu are allowed to reserve blocks of tickets online.
According to the investigation, the number of tickets pulled daily from the walk-up batch varied dramatically, with highs above 700 tickets a day. On Nov. 22, for example, 1,001 of those tickets were reserved for commercial operators.
DePrey said park service investigators concluded that the bundling of the free tickets with the $6 audio headset rental was improper, and so was the secondary reservation system for those tickets, which existed outside of recreation.gov.
The investigation said some tour companies wanted only the tickets and did not even bother to pick up the audio headsets.
According to DePrey, the money went to Pacific Historic Parks. Landrysmith said the number of park rangers was cut in half to about five or six at the memorial in recent years.
Partly as a result of budget cuts, Pacific Historic Parks employees are staffing an increasing number of jobs.
“We live within the resources that are provided by Congress,” DePrey said. “That means from time to time that we need to work with our partners (Pacific Historic Parks) more closely.”
Gene Caliwag, president and chief executive officer at Pacific Historic Parks, could not be reached for comment Friday.
DePrey said about 2,000 tickets per day of the 4,350 available are now devoted to walk-up visitors. But at peak visit times such as the summer, those can go quickly in the morning.
“So we want people to plan ahead and be prepared when they come out to the site,” he said.
In 2013 the park reported nearly 1.8 million visitors, according to the investigation.
DePrey said finding the right mix of reservation and walk-up ticket distribution is a complex task.
“I don’t want folks to also get the message that going through a tour company is necessarily a bad thing,” DePrey said. “For many folks it’s the convenience of not needing to wait in line and have the transportation provided to them. There’s a value to that.”
But if visitors decide not to use a tour company, “they can generally get a ticket if they arrive early in the morning, and if they miss a ticket, there’s generally an opportunity during the day for folks to use the standby system,” DePrey said.