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Everyone’s Welcome at the Statue of Liberty. Except Tour Guides.
Officials with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are banning commercial tour guides from many areas, saying they clog the sites and behave badly. The ban will take effect on May 16, the same day a new museum will open at the Statue of Liberty. Credit: Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times
By Corey KilgannonMay 1, 2019
The familiar words etched on the Statue of Liberty read, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.’’
These days, the famous statue in New York Harbor mostly welcomes a torrent of tourists.
A proliferation of tour groups has set off pedestrian gridlock inside the statue and its sister site, the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, which together receive a combined 4.5 million visitors a year.
It has gotten so bad that the National Park Service, which runs both sites, is taking a dramatic step. Starting in mid-May, the agency is banning organized tours to the statue’s popular outdoor observation deck and to the Ellis Island museum.
A surge in commercial tours has resulted in the need to alleviate “the mounting overcrowding and conflicts with National Park Service programming and operations in the interior spaces on both islands,’’ said Jerry Willis, a spokesman for the agency. “It has severely degraded the visitor experience in the park.’’
Officials with Statue Cruises,the ferry line contracted by the Park Service for service to the two islands, said roughly 250,000 passengers took commercial tours in 2018 — six times as many compared to a decade ago.Jerry Willis, a spokesman for the National Park Service, said the crowding “has severely degraded the visitor experience in the park.’’CreditNatalie Keyssar for The New York Times
The move to limit tourists comes as New York City, from the subway to the streets and parks, seems enveloped in crowds. The city’s population has grown in the past decade to 8.4 million people and tourism has reached record levels.
Sidewalks in parts of Manhattan are so jammed that harried New Yorkers are forced to walk in the street. Times Square has become an obstacle course where pedestrians have to evade fake superheroes seeking tips and sales agents for tour buses and theater shows.
Most visitors go to the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island on their own. But the two islands are among the most desirable destinations for tour groups in New York City, with perhaps 1,000 people per day traveling to the two sites as part of tours.
While that is only a small fraction of the 24,000 visitors the islands get on a busy day, the tour groups cause a disproportionate amount of problems, Park Service officials said.
Many tours crowd doorways and exhibits and obstruct traffic flow and create safety concerns, Mr. Willis said.
Then there is the issue of tour guides behaving badly — from loud talking and altercations with other tour leaders, to hogging prime exhibit spaces and giving incorrect information, he said.The Park Service also makes audio guides available to visitors.CreditNatalie Keyssar for The New York Times
But the exclusion of commercial tours has angered guides, who say the Park Service is responding too harshly to these problems.
Michael Morgenthal, a tour guide and a member of Guides Association of New York City, an industry group, said the guides had asked park officials to adopt a reasonable code of conduct, among other possible solutions, instead of issuing a ban.
“Instead, they just dropped the hammer on us,” he said. “We think it’s an overreaction and it’s going to hurt the visitor experience.”
Poor behavior by tour guides is rare, he said. In fact, most guides add to smooth traffic flow by shepherding their groups efficiently through the sites and by watching for problems from their group and other visitors, he added.
Outdoor commercial tours of the islands will still be permitted. Commercial tours will also be allowed inside of the statue’s lobby and mezzanine, which are below the observation deck, though Park Service staffers will monitor them closely, Mr. Willis said.
The new restrictions have cast a pall among tour guides at an otherwise high point for the Statue of Liberty, where a new museum is scheduled to open on May 16, the same day the new restrictions take effect.
The museum will feature an immersive theater and the statue’s original torch.
Mr. Morgenthal said roughly 250 guides regularly lead tours on the islands — about several dozen per day — and that the new restrictions would decimate business for them.
A guide led by a National Parks Service worker inside the museum at Ellis Island.CreditNatalie Keyssar for The New York Times
Far fewer tourists are likely to hire a guide merely for an outdoor tour, he said. Many will instead opt for Park Service tours, which he said would be overwhelmed by the new demand. Also, he wondered how the Park Service would enforce the ban.
Mr. Willis said tour guides or companies that do not abide by the rules could be excluded from the islands entirely by being prevented from purchasing ferry ticket
A more extreme enforcement step could entail limiting the number of tours allowed on the islands and requiring guides to have permits that would carry fees and revenue sharing requirements with the Park Service.
As Mr. Morgenthal spoke inside the Ellis Island museum’s Great Hall, a Park Service guide brought a group of about 50 visitors around an old desk once used for interviewing immigrants, blocking other visitors from accessing it.
“We understand it’s their home turf, but that’s certainly something we tell our guides not to do,” he said.
Along with tourism in New York City— which has risen steadily for the last decade to a record high of 65.2 million visitors in 2018 — the number of tour guides has also grown in recent years. There are about 3,350 sightseeing guides licensed by the city.
Mr. Willis emphasized that most tour guides were professional and courteous. Still, he said, some problematic ones conducted tours loudly and sometimes created friction and altercations with other guides vying for space.
This included big footing other visitors away to give their group exclusive access to key attractions, such as the old desks in the Great Hall.
Commercial tour guides will be permitted to conduct “a brief site orientation” for their group in a first-floor area of the Ellis Island museum, from November to March and during periods of inclement weather.The new rules ban commercial tours from a sixth-floor outdoor observation deck in the Statue of Liberty and from the museum on Ellis Island.CreditNatalie Keyssar for The New York Times
The statue’s popularity has had other ramifications at the ferry dock in Lower Manhattan, said Rafael Abreu, a spokesman for Statue Cruises.
Tourists heading to the ferry ticket offices in Battery Park are regularly swarmed byticket sellersfor other companies who offer more expensive tickets for trips that typically involve taking a bus to another ferry that circles Liberty Island, but does not actually dock there or on Ellis Island.
Tom Bernardin — a 70-year-old guide known as “Mr. Ellis Island” for his tenure giving tours at the island beginning 41 years ago as a park ranger — called the restrictions extreme.
“This is basically ending my career, if they enforce this,” Mr. Bernardin said.The number of visitors to Liberty Island and Ellis Island taking commercial tours was 250,000 last year, six times as many as a decade ago.CreditNatalie Keyssar for The New York Times
Lourdes Reyes, who runs Spanish-speaking tours on the islands, also criticized the ban.
“This is the greatest tourist site in the greatest city in the world,’’ she said, “and instead of establishing a protocol to fix the problem, they just suddenly ban all tour guides, who really enhance the visitor experience.”
On a recent weekday, Leanne Littlestone, a tour guide and native New Yorker who livens up her tours by acting out historical roles in a street-savvy shtick, briefed her group of 15 tourists on the Statue of Liberty’s history and then led them inside and up to the sixth floor observation deck. But she avoided making a speaking stop there so to not clog traffic.
“We guide people through quicker than they could on their own, so it’s only going to get more chaotic without us inside,” she said. “We make thing more efficient and orderly, not less.”
Corey Kilgannon is a Metro reporter covering news and human interest stories. He was also part of the team that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News.