Visitors to Liberty and Ellis islands can expect big changes as of May 16: On the same day that the National Park Service unveils its new 26,000-square-foot Statue of Liberty Museum, so too will the service begin its ban on organized tours to the statue’s outdoor observation deck and Ellis Island Museum. To be clear, the park service will still offer its own tours, but is putting the kibbosh on those arranged by commercial tour guides at the most desirable parts of the site.
The ban stems from a need to combat “the mounting overcrowding and conflicts with National Park Service programming and operations in the interior spaces on both islands,” park service spokesperson Jerry Willis told the New York Times. “It has severely degraded the visitor experience in the park.’’
A record 65.2 million people visited New York City in 2018, making it the ninth consecutive year the city’s tourism numbers have gone up. And uniquely New York destinations—like Times Square and, ahem, the Statue of Liberty—really feel the pinch. In 2018, roughly 250,000 passengers took commercial tours to the statue, and while that’s just a small fraction of the site’s annual visitors, that number has been growing steadily and is about six times what it was a decade ago.
Roughly 4.5 million visit the statue and Ellis Island Museum annually, and most on public tours. But the park service maintains that the thousand-or-so visitors who arrive on commercial tours cause a disproportionate amount of problems. Those problems range from obstructing traffic flow throughout the site to tour guides disseminating misinformation and butting heads with other tour leaders, the service says.
But third-party guides, many of whom make their livelihood performing these tours, see it differently. “This is basically ending my career, if they enforce this,” said Tom Bernardin, a former park ranger and guide who’s been giving tours at the site for over 40 years.
Other tour guides have suggested that park officials instead create a reasonable code of conduct for the guides. “Instead, they just dropped the hammer on us,” said tour guide and Guide Association of New York member Michael Morgenthal. He estimates about 250 guides regularly lead tours on the island and believes the new rule would not only upend their business, but also likely overwhelm the park service with increased demand.
Commercial guides will still be permitted to lead tours outdoors at the site, and will also still be allowed to access the statue’s lobby and mezzanine (though not its famed observation deck.)
“This is the greatest tourist site in the greatest city in the world,’’ Lourdes Reyes, a guide who runs Spanish-speaking tours at the site, told the Times, “and instead of establishing a protocol to fix the problem, they just suddenly ban all tour guides, who really enhance the visitor experience.”