Prosperity at an Acceptable Price: Yap and Palau Try to Protect Culture in the Age of Tourism

By Sidell, Louisa Kasdon | The World and I, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Prosperity at an Acceptable Price: Yap and Palau Try to Protect Culture in the Age of Tourism


Sidell, Louisa Kasdon, The World and I


Louisa Kasdon Sidell is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.

The tribal chiefs, the villagers, and the elected officials on the tiny island State of Yap in Micronesia, look across at their neighbors on the islands of Palau, and they are afraid. They observe how a spike in tourism dollars quickly improved their neighbors' standard of living-- more roads are paved, the communications infrastructure is better, and hospitals are more up to date by far in Palau than they are in Yap. But the elders worry that economic progress is not always a blessing, and that unexpected social and cultural erosion can follow in its wake.

Yap and Palau are both considered diving destinations of a lifetime for serious scuba divers and snorkelers. But as vacation destinations for non-divers, they are virtually undiscovered. The aquatic life is incredible. The Micronesian reefs are thick with so many varieties of brilliantly colored tropical fish, sea turtles, and massive manta rays that even first-time snorkelers, outfitted with a simple mask and flippers, can swim in what feels like an over-stocked tropical aquarium.

Because of the islands' remoteness, their waters and reefs are virtually undisturbed. The islands can also offer non-divers a rare glimpse into the rich, if not entirely intact Micronesian culture. For a culture vulture, a visit to Yap or Palau is a virtual walk through the National Geographic articles of the fifties and sixties. In Yap, the women are comfortably bare-breasted and wear ankle-length grass skirts as they walk down the road, greet you at the airport, and stand in line at the bank. Palau, for all its totems of Asian investment--a new marina, a dolphin park, four-star hotels, and restaurants that serve international cuisine--is still a place where villagers often congregate in a bai, the traditional triangular thatch-roofed meeting house central to Palauan village culture, and village chiefs preside over many over many day-to- day decisions.

Palau is also sophisticated about environment conservation for both its natural resources and its wildlife. It has its dugongs (called mesekiu in Palauan), the huge 1,500-pound sea cows that live in the reefs surrounding Palau, as much out of respect for their role in Palauan mythology as they are for their ecological significance.

Wisdom in the basket

In Yap, they have a saying; "There is wisdom in the basket." Every conversation, even in those in government chambers, with all participants seated in swivel armchairs, begins with a ritual chew of betel nuts. When the men (and women) of Yap, want to think and talk about something complicated, the session always begins with their hands in their baskets, pulling out their nuts, and dusting a fresh green leaf with powdered coral lime and popping it in their mouths. To the Yapese, those whose teeth and gums are stained the brightest red from decades of betel nut chewing are indisputably the wisest.

Yap is a destination where a visitor can watch time stand still. I have the sense that if I went back to Yap in another ten years, the same people would be carving story boards, reeling in Parrot fish for dinner, and chewing betel nuts. Yap is beautiful, and for divers, it's the destination of a lifetime. On our trip to Yap we were able to see, and to document the conscious efforts to keep traditional culture thriving-- a dance performance that is as much about teaching children as it is to entertain visitors, craftsmen who still carve with steel adzes--even though they are fully proficient with a power saw, men who work bare- chested at computers in government offices, but still know not to enter into a neighboring village without the explicit permission of the chief. It's a fascinating admixture of the very modern--in a thatch hut, a baby swings in a hand-woven basket, wearing disposable diapers imprinted with pastel ducks--while the grandmother listens to the radio, and cooks rice over an open fire.

And yet, Yap is ambivalent about promoting tourism. In interviews with the governor, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, the floor leader, and the director of tourism, each explained in painstaking detail how the nation walks the line between welcoming tourists and keeping the torrent contained. Sure, they want infrastructure improvement--an air-conditioned airport, a second shopping center, even a little television station, and another ATM machine would be nice--but not at the price of losing the village culture.

Yapese concerns on over-development

The State of Yap and the Republic of Palau are each comprised of a cluster of volcanic islands, atolls, and coral reefs, set like flotsam in the middle of the Western Carolines, in the Pacific Ocean, 1,300 kilometers southwest of Guam and 740 kilometers east of the Philippines. Yap's territory claims 138 islands, but only four are inhabited. Palau has twenty inhabited islands with a total population of just fewer than 20,000. Yap's borders cover 100,000 square miles on the globe's surface, but its land mass occupies under 50 square miles. It is rugged and hilly, with pockets of lush vegetation and extraordinary views of Pacific sunsets. But as disconnected as Yap's terrain might be, the traditional ethos of the island is remarkably unified. The Council of Village chiefs has as much influence over the governance of the state as do the secular elected leaders.

Yap revels in its reputation for "cultural conservatism in Micronesia," still proudly using the huge stone money disks that were quarried in Palau over the centuries and hauled to Yap in outrigger canoes, and are set permanently in the ground as a kind of open-air bank for all to see. Even today, stone money is used to secure the purchase of a house or to finance a dowry. Yap is a poor nation, a subsistence economy truly, struggling with an inherent and national reluctance to do what most destinations with splendid climate, warm waters, and a warm-hearted residents would do in the same economic situation: Bring on the busloads from abroad.

But Yap isn't most destinations. For all its exotic eye appeal, Yap doesn't exactly encourage tourism. For example, the official tourism office brochures request that visitors walk in single file through villages, and keep the noise level down. Women visitors are asked not to bare their thighs in public as it is considered offensive in traditional Yap culture. It's an impressive list of don'ts. Andrew Yatilman, the general manager of the Yap Visitor's Bureau, explains the official position: "Our government is very clear on its direction for tourism development in Yap: a sustainable tourism industry where our culture and environment are not threatened. The leaders of Yap have set 15,000 visitors a year as the maximum allowable number that would be sustainable."

Yatilman says that Yap-bound tourists must do their part as well. "While we wholeheartedly welcome visitors to Yap," he says, "to enjoy diving, seeing cultural activities on Yap, and enjoy the natural beauty of our small islands, what they come here to see can only be preserved and perpetuated if visitors restrain themselves--by not contributing to the degradation of the traditional culture, and our environment.

"To have the best experience in Yap, visitors need to show respect for our culture, our people, and our surroundings. In return, the Yapese people will reciprocate. We are shy, but very friendly and we encourage visitors to mingle with the locals and learn about our culture. The better they understand us, the less likelihood that a visitor will do something that is considered offensive in the Yapese culture."

The state's constitution ensures that traditional Yapese tradition and culture overlay all decision-making. All state projects, whether in tourism, education, or fisheries, are subject to review and approval by the two traditional Councils of Chiefs, a group that constitutes a powerful fourth branch of the government, and has veto power over loosely defined traditional affairs. But as much as Yap's elders hope to preserve and perpetuate their tradition and culture, things are never that simple in today's world. "Our Yapese young people perceive mixed signals," Yatilman says.

Yap's young people live in a modern world with movies, satellite TV, and the Internet, and most travel abroad for advanced education. As Yatilman explains, "They are a different breed. Like all developing states/nations in the world, Yap is putting emphasis on the training and education of our people. While this is a noble thing to do, it does adversely impacting our younger people's views of life in general. Almost everything they are taught in school is based on western values, and a western way of thinking and problem solving. Even our clothes and the food we eat, is influenced by the west. So we have a mixed breed, traditional Yapese clashing with the modern viewpoint. Who is the cultural person and who is the modern person?"

Even if the state wanted more growth, Yap's traditional structure of land ownership--all land is privately owned--presents a major obstacle to the kind of development that a flourishing tourism trade would require. Yatilman explains: "We want development. We need well- intentioned investors to come in, and help us keep up with the rest of the world. Relaxing our laws and regulations would constitute infringement on the rights of landowners. There is no public land in Yap except where the government offices sit. For anyone wanting to invest in Yap, re-negotiating land use rights would be a nightmare. So what can the State do? Exercise eminent domain power? That would be disruptive and out of line with our wish to preserve tradition and culture."

Palau embraces tourist growth

Neighboring Palau, 360 miles across the sea and a five-day journey by outrigger canoe from Yap (today, it is just a half-hour flight across the ocean), has plunged energetically into tourism. But like the Yapese, Palauans are wrestling in their own way to strike the right balance between the preservation of its culture and the presentation of its culture.

Relatively speaking, Palau has hit the tourism big time with divers and non-divers. In the last few years, Palau has had a major up-tick in tourism dollars, a 1 percent growth from the previous year. Last year, Palau had sixty thousand visitors. Most are from Taiwan and Japan, even though there are direct flights between Guam and Koror--the site of Palau's international airport, flying to Palau from Asia takes approximately three hours. The island has become a popular honeymoon package destination for Taiwanese and Japanese newlyweds. Palau has embraced the idea of becoming a hot spot. It is building a golf course. It has four-star hotels, a dolphin park, cable television, and every kind of restaurant from pizza to sushi. Yap, on the other hand, is sparse in terms of its temptations for tourists. One, maybe two reasonable hotels, a few dive shops, and one actual bar--and even that is only open a few nights per week)

Palau has been independent only since 1994; it was under German and Japanese rule at different points in its history, and like Yap, it has been an American protectorate since the conclusion of World War II. In many ways, Palau first came into international consciousness in World War II when it was a gruesome epicenter for one of the Pacific Theater's most costly battles. The three-day battle between Japanese and Americans sailors and soldiers on the remote island of Peleliu cost the lives of over 20,000 men. In one of those unlikely twists, the detritus of war put Palau on the map as a haven for a generation of scuba divers who wanted to swim into and around the wrecks and relics of war. In the process, the divers discovered that Palau's coral reef ecosystem had nurtured a rare underwater paradise, without parallel for divers anywhere else in the world. The dive business begot tourism development in Yap.

At first, all the lodgings in Yap were built to service the not-so-fussy needs of committed scuba divers who wanted nothing more than an inexpensive motel next to the marina. As the dive business began to thrive in the eighties and nineties, Palau began to attract more discerning visitors who wanted more than a bed next to the dive shop. As cash began to flow in, so did a rising recognition of the importance of both ecological conservation and cultural tradition. Watersheds were established, stern rules on poaching and fishing, restrictions that made some of Palau's most fragile reef ecosystems off-limits for foreigners, and an investment in discovering and displaying Palauan traditional crafts and culture--much of which had been shipped to German museums in the nineteenth century.

A movement to preserve and showcase Palauan history and tradition began, financed by the success of the financial prosperity of the growing tourism business. A national museum was established, the Belau National Museum, a conservation commission to protect the wildlife and the environment was formed, and a Pacific Arts Festival to present Palauan traditional music, art, and dance debuted. It was as if the Palauan civic leaders suddenly woke up, realized that their culture was valuable and worth preserving, and that it was in jeopardy for future generations.

Seeking balance

Mandy Etpison, founder of the Etpison Museum and the vice chair of the Palau's Tourism Council, was one of the prime movers behind the protection of Palau's cultural heritage. Married to a native Palauan, Etpison fell in love with her adoptive culture and published the island's first book on Palauan arts and traditions. "We started our museum in 1998, because Palau was only known for diving, people were looking for sightseeing attractions but there were none," she remembers. "Palauans were very reluctant to share or show their culture, and the National Museum of Palau did not have much of a budget or display. Palau's traditional culture has always been a secretive one. The biggest challenge was to get to realize that one of our tourist attractions is presenting our culture, and that it can do it in a way that will not hurt their culture and customs.

"Palauans need to realize that tourists want to see traditional dances with local grass skirts, not a cha-cha dance with plastic skirts, on American music! Because of the American influence and TV, a lot of local kids think everything modern is better than what they have here on island." Etpison is at the heart of the energy to develop Palau's resort potential. Her family has working with outside investors to develop waterfront hotels, a spiffy marina and dive dock, and the new Dolphin research center--a sort of Palauan version of sea world where a visitor can "encounter" dolphins in the pool. In a way, Etpison is a metaphor for Palau's next challenge: how to keep the scales from tipping as it balances its growing popularity with visitors with a need to preserve its distinct cultural history.

Tourism officials in Yap say that they are taking a "back seat" approach to tourism, as they watch their neighbors deal with development. Nearby Saipan and Guam, which had their tourism boom in the eighties are the learning classrooms for tourism development elsewhere in Micronesia. Yap's Yatilman observes that in "Guam and Saipan, everything just went wild. All their planners saw the huge revenue pouring into their local economy from tourism and they neglected to take a step back to analyze things before they fell right back in their faces. Now, Saipan is having its sets of problems and so is Guam. Foreign investors are basically benefiting from what tourism generates in those islands. And the indigenous people feel they have slipped through the cracks. Somebody else is reaping the benefit of tourism dollars instead of the locals, he says. Yatilman fears that Palau is heading in the same direction as Guam and Saipan. Like other Yapese, with the air of an interested next-door- neighbor, Yatilman worries about Palau. "Total arrivals for Palau are approaching 100,000 per year. What is a sustainable figure for Palau before the infrastructure is stressed beyond its limit? Before the pristine environment of Palau is impacted? Palau has mass campaigns to bring in tourists and there seems to be a beginning of a tourism boom in Palau. But will it 'run away' from their control if not done right?"

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Prosperity at an Acceptable Price: Yap and Palau Try to Protect Culture in the Age of Tourism
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