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Yosemite's Iconic Ahwahnee Hotel is Soon to Be No More—A Sad Case of Privatization Gone Haywire

Pillaged on our watch: The iconic Ahwahnee Hotel

This has got to be among the more asinine results of government privatization in the travel universe.

After nearly 90 years, Yosemite's iconic—and we don't use that word lightly—Ahwahnee Hotel must change its name because of a legal dispute between the government, which owns the land, and its fired concessionaire, Delaware North, which ran it from 1993 until this year.

Delaware North, a tourism giant that operates as a vendor at tourist traps ranging from casinos to race tracks to legitimate treasures such as Grand Canyon National Park and Kennedy Space Center, won't voluntarily give up the rights to the name "Ahwahnee," which it acquired largely for the purpose of tee-shirt and coffee mug peddling when it took over the operations contract. Despite the fact the hotel was opened in 1927 as the Ahwahnee and became a National Historic Place with no help from Delaware North, it owns the trademark; indeed, the NPS sold it to them, as it has done similarly at other iconic places. 

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Since Delaware North was fired from running things at Yosemite, it announced that the National Park Service can have the names back for free as long as Delaware North can still sell them to the next vendor for the highest price possible. (Of course, the high price it demands may scupper the deal with any incoming competitor, which would probably suit Delaware North fine since it was let go).

And so, with the stamp of a high-priced lawyer's foot, a century's worth of tradition and meaning is slated to be painted over out of spite—and to add to the insult, it will happen at a crown jewel of the National Park Service during the very year that it celebrates its centenary.

As of March 1, 2016, you'll have to call the famous Ahwahnee Hotel the "Majestic Yosemite Hotel". The new name holds neither magic nor meaning, as storied as the Airport Marriott, as if a cabal of accountants renamed the Waldorf-Astoria as the Fancy New York Hotel or London's Savoy as the Expensive Riverside. Delaware North has posted a blood-boiling, not-at-all-convincing explanation of why it must plunder the monetary value of names of some of America's most long-lived vacation institutions, but it probably also has a lot to do with the fact it recently lost a $2 billion bid to keep running the hotels and restaurants at Yosemite, the largest contract in the U.S. park system.

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The National Park Service, which chose those uninspiring names because it doesn't like Delaware North's plans for the trademark rights, has registered its sadness in the press. But what we should all be asking is just how, in its heedless zeal to hand over the reins of our national icons to the private sector, it allowed emblems of American heritage to be signed away to a highest bidder—and then changed the names of its own precious American landmarks simply because of a legal fight. It's just as guilty in this greedy mess as its vendor.

The storied name of the grand Ahwahnee is not the only thing Delaware North wrecked on its way out the door. As of March 1, the National Park Service will change the names of other historic Yosemite tourist attractions and hotels. Goodbye, legendary budget camp Curry Village—now you're "Half Dome Village," just because the NPS got caught in its own profit trap. 

Never mind that these places were inscribed in the history books years long the suits at Delaware North were even born. Their names are essentially being packed up and looted by a private vendor, or at least devalued by the NPS out of anger.

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Meet your other new Yosemite attractions, which are now named as if they were the least offensive suggestions for a junior high prom theme. The Wawona Hotel will put you to sleep in more ways than one as the "Big Trees Lodge." The adorably named Badger Pass Ski Area becomes Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area, which sounds like an anonymous skate park in the sketchy part of your town. The Yosemite Lodge at the Falls comes out the least mangled: It will now be the Yosemite Valley Lodge.

Names mean something. Delaware North certainly thinks so: The Fresno Bee reports that it has been snapping up trademarks to many things that Americans probably thought were a part of their shared national heritage, such as NASA's "Space Shuttle Atlantis," on display in Florida. That's right—it has applied to own that name, too.
 
Don't like it? I encourage you to contact Delaware North (here's the page that tells you how) and tell them to return the names to the next concessionaire without charge. And notify the National Park Service that selling American heritage to the private sector should never have a place in its stewardship plans.
 
No matter what a judge says, you can't own American heritage. The NPS created this mess by selling them, and Congress forced its hand by starving it of funding. Bleeding America's shared culture for profit, and callously disregarding the value of the history each player has been sanctioned to celebrate, is no business model.
 
Is there anything a lawyer can't ruin?
 
 
Jason Cochran (@JasCochran) is Editor-in-Chief of Frommers.com.
(Photo: Kenny Karst/DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.)
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