(eTN) – A San Diego gift shop operator has drawn the ire of cultural watchdogs after ousting island artisans from one of Hawaii’s most popular tourist attractions.
Some fans of the Polynesian Cultural Center, which draws about 700,000 visitors each year, complain that many authentic crafts have disappeared from the center’s gift shop on Oahu since San Diego-based Event Network took over retail operations last year.
“I tried to go Christmas shopping and couldn’t find the local crafters that I normally find at PCC,” said Kathy Connors, a resident of Windward Oahu. “I’d say at least 90 percent of it is made in China or overseas. I’m originally from Hong Kong, and I just can’t send Made-In-China Hawaiian gifts to friends in Hong Kong.”
Event Network, which operates gift shops in museums, aquariums and other attractions nationwide, acknowledged that the previous handful of local artisans and vendors who ran several center shops were let go when the company took over.
The center, located about one hour from Waikiki, is a top tourist destination. It consists of seven native villages that are designed to give visitors a glimpse of native Hawaiian and other South Pacific cultures.
But the perceived influx of look-alike crafts not produced on the islands has miffed cultural purists. The issue landed Event Network on the front page of The Honolulu Advertiser last week.
Larry Gilbert, president of Event Network, maintains that the center’s gift shops and crafts remain “very authentic” to the cultures the center showcases. He said the shops source many of the same items from the displaced vendors as well as new ones.
“There are people who create crafts all over the Hawaiian and Polynesian islands, and there are many different people we buy from,” said Gilbert, whose company operates gift shops in 48 locations, including the San Diego Air &Space Museum in Balboa Park. “There isn’t just one source of product. Our job is to bring together the best and most authentic and most interesting assortment possible. It is no different from any retail environment – sources change.”
The center does offer products made in Hawaii and the Pacific, including tapa cloth made in Hawaii and Fiji, according to Event Network. Other items are produced elsewhere to keep them affordable – for instance, the center’s Hawaiian-style quilts are made in the Philippines.
Susan Kunz, director of PCC’s retail stores for Event Network, said the company required a “different business model” when it took over operations for the center, according to the Advertiser article that ran Thursday.
“There were a lot of unhappy feelings. For some of these people that was their whole livelihood. So that’s a tough thing,” Kunz said. “But it just becomes a different business model. You just have to adjust. It’s a different way of doing business.”
Kunz told the newspaper that the challenge is maintaining a product balance that serves everyone from Saudi princes to everyday tourists. Because PCC is a major cultural attraction it needs a steady supply of quality products, she said.
“I need to find people who can supply me and who can keep me in product and who can deal with a company,” Kunz told the Advertiser. “We don’t do cash on delivery, for example. And we’re not a craft fair. We’re not one-time buyers. So we deal with purchase orders. And we pay with a check after 30 days – that kind of thing.
“And some of that becomes very difficult for our local crafters because they’re not used to it,” Kunz said.
Cultural watchdogs who are championing some of the local artisans said the “mainland” business model doesn’t always work for one-of-a-kind items. Kona Hahn, a native Hawaiian whose family practiced the art of lauhala weaving, said a compromise should be found.
“We are trying to keep part of our heritage alive by doing the authentic things that were done generations ago,” Hahn said. “So many tourists make the PCC a destination. They’ve paid all this money to come to Hawaii and they want to bring home something made in Hawaii – not the Philippines.”