Journal of Interpretation Research
Volume 21, Number 1

Multiculturalism, Language Barriers, and Service Quality

Mark Morgan, Ph.D.
School of Natural Resources
University of Missouri
Columbia, MO USA 65211

Kai Qiao
Department of Physical Education
Chongqing University of Technology
Chongqing, China

If the White majority becomes a minority population in the United States by 2050, as predicted, this shift might result in a dilemma for the National Park Service (NPS) because Caucasians have provided the mainstay of agency support over the past century. According to published reports, recommendations to improve park awareness and relevance for underserved groups are being addressed by the National Parks Conservation Association. Although Asians are one of the fastest growing minorities in the U.S., they are infrequent NPS visitors. One possible explanation is language barriers, compounded by English-only websites and printed material. A service-quality test using a Chinese confederate was designed to examine some performance measures. Of the 370 national parks queried, less than 18% had any information for Chinese visitors. Some managerial implications for Asian inclusiveness are discussed.

Asians, minorities, visitation, national parks, policy, management

In 2008, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) formed the National Parks Second Century Commission, an independent team of national leaders and experts to create a 21st-century vision for the National Park Service (NPS). Connecting People and Parks was one of eight reports published by NPCA in 2009. The first recommendation (2009, p. 7) was, “Establish a universal commitment within the Park Service to engage and serve people of all backgrounds with an urgency and dedication that equals the commitment to preserve park resources.” Action item 1 (2009, p. 7) stated, “Make a sustained commitment from the top of the National Park Service through its ranks to embrace our country’s diversity and shape the Service to make our national parks welcoming and relevant to all Americans.”

This report also revealed some uncertainty on ways that Americans were receiving information about national parks and how they were making connections with natural and cultural resources. Use of English-only websites and printed material were identified by the Office of Management and Budget as language barriers for some audiences to fully enjoy and appreciate park resources. Multiculturalism is both an opportunity and a challenge for the NPS, as every racial and ethnic group in the U.S. is expected to increase in number and percent before 2050, except for Whites (the traditional base of political and financial support). In response to anticipated demographic changes, the vision produced by the commission (2009, p. 1) clearly stated, the NPS “will connect with individuals and communities in ways that are meaningful in the context of the diverse perspectives, interests, and values that our communities represent.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that few national parks have the resources to offer translation services for the spectrum of international visitors. A service-quality test was designed to examine some performance measures in the NPCA report.

Literature Review
Recognition and subsequent study of undeserved audiences in parks and outdoor areas began in the 1970s (Pease, 2015). During that time, some minorities have received more attention in the outdoor recreation literature than others. Little is known about Asians who visit NPS sites because they are often combined with other ethnic groups to form a small and meaningless “other” category (Floyd, 1999). Yet, one study revealed that Asians were more likely to agree with the statements, “I just don’t know that much about NPS units,” “NPS units are too crowded,” and “NPS employees give poor service to visitors,” as compared to other NPS visitors when segmented by race (Taylor, Grandjean, & Gramann, 2011). Morgan and Hwang (2014) measured interpretive theme perception of Korean visitors who toured the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and found that simple educational interventions (DVD and a guided tour) led to a significant improvement in scores.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2012), Asian-Americans were the fastest growing minority group from 2000 to 2010. This population is expected to double by 2060. Moreover, outbound Asian tourism to the U.S. is increasing rapidly, at least for some travel markets. For example, the National Travel and Tourism Office (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2014) reported the number of Chinese tourists in the U.S. had increased over 450% from 2007 to 2014, and 40% of them visited a national park/monument on their trip (approximately 875,000 visitors). Despite a growing resident population and burgeoning travel market, the number of Asian visitors at most national parks is insignificant compared to other market segments according to reports published by the Visitor Services Project at the University of Idaho. However, one NPS study indicated that 29% of Asians visited at least one national park within a 24-month period (Solop, Hagen, & Ostergren, 2003). Although many Asians can speak English, one reason for non-attendance at national parks might be due to real or perceived language barriers. Other groups often affected by language issues include first generation immigrants or immigrants having low assimilation levels (Stoldolska, 2000; Scott, Lee, Lee, & Kim, 2006).

A list of NPS websites (n=489) was obtained and consolidated after removing units under shared management (n=370). A Chinese visiting scholar at the University of Missouri, acting as a potential visitor, sent an email to each of the national parks in February 2015 using a private Gmail account created specifically for this project. The exact correspondence was, “I plan to visit several national parks while on vacation this summer. Do you have any form of Chinese translation at your site, such as brochure, audio-visual, or sales item from the gift shop? Thank you.” One reminder email was sent to non-respondents about 10 days after the initial contact was made. The analysis is based on NPS response to this one question, measured yes or no.

Only 343 of 370 NPS websites had valid email addresses. Of the 343 emails sent, replies were received from 256 parks (74.6% response rate). Slightly less than 18% of the sites (n=46) had any information for Chinese visitors. On average, the response time was 2.19 days.

Discussion and Implications
Although one item is an imperfect indicator of service quality, it was useful for providing some initial feedback on foreign language availability in the NPS and their responsiveness to visitor inquiries. Perhaps this study will stimulate greater research interest in service quality measurement. The 27 units having broken or missing email addresses should be updated immediately, as this represents a lost opportunity for anyone who attempts to contact the park using this popular form of communication. The non-response rate (25.4%) is hardly a “welcoming” statistic for potential visitors, especially since the NPS enjoys such a high level of satisfaction among federal resource management agencies.

The speed of response, slightly over 2 days, was a pleasant surprise. This showed a sense of urgency and dedication on behalf of the staff who answer general park inquiries, via emails. Not surprisingly, few national parks provide any information in Chinese (presumably this figure would have been even lower if the parks who did not respond were included). This finding may address park relevance, at least for the Chinese visitor population. In contrast, the visiting scholar noted that virtually all federal parks in China have English translations.

The NPS has been a standard bearer for resource preservation and public enjoyment since 1916. Now is time for the agency to prioritize for the “second century.” Parallel versions of the websites are a possible solution, yet this benefit must be weighed against the cost of each park having information available in multiple languages. Although many national parks include Spanish translations, this strategy is impractical for every foreign language. A less-costly approach is the use of auto-translation programs on websites, if validity can be assured. The Virginia State Park system uses Google Translate™ for this purpose.

Geographical areas where concentrations of Asians live and/or visit (i.e., large urban areas and the Pacific Coast) should be targeted initially, serving parks that have the greatest need. This would include units of cultural and historical significance, in addition to resource-based parks. Since brochures and pamphlets are basic forms of communication, a variety of translations should be available upon request. Headset applications are a cost-efficient language solution for some guided tours, such as in caves. GoPro™ cameras could add an exciting dimension to the park experience for international visitors.

The use of technology, diversity training, and strategic (minority) hires are several ways for the NPS to improve service quality as America continues to develop into a multicultural society. The agency should experiment with different options—much hangs in the balance during the next century.

Floyd, M. (1999). Social science review: Race, ethnicity and use of the national park system. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from /SSRR_2.pdf

Morgan, M. & Hwang, G. (2014). Perception of theme-based interpretation at the Jefferson National Memorial Expansion Memorial: A study of Korean visitors. Journal of Interpretation Research, 19, 25–37.

National Parks Conservation Association (2009). Connecting people and parks committee report. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from People_and_Parks.PDF

Pease, J. (2015). Parks and underserved audiences. Journal of Interpretation Research, 20, 11–56.

Scott, D., Lee, S., Lee, J., & Kim, C. (2006). Leisure constraints and acculturation among Korean immigrants. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 24, 63–86.

Solop, F., Hagen, K., Ostergren, D. (2003). Ethnic and racial diversity of national park system visitors and non-visitors (Technical Report). Retrieved October 1, 2015, from http://www.

Stodolska, M. (2000). Changes in leisure participation after immigration. Leisure Sciences, 22, 39-63.

Taylor, P., Grandjean, B., & Gramann, J. (2011). National Park Service comprehensive survey of the American public 2008–2009: Racial and ethnic diversity of national park system visitors and non-visitors (Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/SSD/NRR-2011/432). Retrieved October 1, 2015, from 2009RaceEthnicity.pdf

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U.S. Department of Commerce. (2014). 2014 Market profile: China. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from Profile.pdf