Skip to content

For museums, historic sites and the U.N., audio players replace people for that guided tour

un9.jpg

Enkel Daljani of Albania is a tour guide at the United Nations in New York. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

un7.jpg

Tourists take pictures while on a tour of the United Nations' headquarters in New York. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

un2.jpg

Enkel Daljani of Albania is a tour guide at the United Nations in New York. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

un3.jpg

Enkel Daljani of Albania is a tour guide at the United Nations in New York. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

Sunlight still streams onto the rusted iron bars of the prison cells on Alcatraz Island, but park rangers no longer lead tourists around "the Rock," as it is known. Instead, visitors traverse the notorious island listening to audio tours narrated by former guards and inmates.

In Memphis, Tenn., fans of Elvis Presley stroll through his white-columned estate, Graceland, while the voice of Lance LeGault, one of Elvis' former body doubles, whispers the story of the King of Rock 'n' Roll into their ears through rented black headphones. Strains of “Heartbreak Hotel” can be heard from time to time.

Less common is the setup at the United Nations, where guides recruited from 31 countries conduct tours of the organization's headquarters. Clad in designer blue uniforms, the guides offer comments and field questions in at least two languages, sculpting tours around the nationalities of their charges.

“The experience has to be unique, and you get that with passion and with someone who holds your interest,” said Isabelle Broyer, head of the U.N.'s guided tours unit. “If you get a guide on autopilot, you're not going to have a good tour.”

Few of America's premier tourist attractions still use tour guides. Most have made the switch to recorded guides, now a ubiquitous feature at museum and historic sites across the country. Cheaper and more efficient than their human forerunners, audio guides off a standardized experience that, while often richer in detail, also brings into question how interactive a tour should be.

In the past, tours had to be led by someone with an intimate and personal understanding of the attraction. Guides honed their skills of interpretation, the technical term for the practice of developing historical or emotional connections between an audience and its surroundings.

But a half-century ago in sleepy Hyde Park, N.Y., a company called Acoustiguide outfitted Eleanor Roosevelt's house with portable reel-to-reel tape players. Guides' interpretation skills were captured on tape and played back on the portable tape players. The players gained in popularity during the 1990s, abetted by the spread of digital technology. Today an industry leader like Antenna Audio can claim more than 50,000 worldwide listeners each day.

As a result, the burgeoning U.S. tourism market is making do with fewer guides. Surveys conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the number of employed tour guides and escorts dropped 7.6 percent to 28,320 in 2005 from 30,480 in 2000.

If tourists have noticed, they're not complaining.

“We decided to go to an audio tour because the public had developed an expectation of an audio tour,” said Todd Morgan, director of creative development at Graceland. “It had become the standard.”

That standard offers a completely different experience than a traditional lecture-and-question tour. Institutions can augment recorded guides with celebrity voiceovers, music and historical noises to create a layered dialog between viewer and subject.

Graceland's 45-minute audio tour includes contributions from Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley, while the script of the Alcatraz tour includes first-person narratives of the famous 1962 breakout memorialized in the Clint Eastwood movie “Escape From Alcatraz.”

Moreover, switching to audio tours allows visitors to proceed at their own pace, allowing for a continual flow of tourists and increased overall attendance.

Rich Weideman, chief of public affairs for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, started as a seasonal park ranger on Alcatraz in 1981, when the island drew about 400,000 visitors every year. That figure has swelled to 1.4 million since the park service switched to full-time audio tours in 1987.

Officials at Graceland initially expected that if people "were in charge of their own tour, [they] would bog everything down,” Morgan said. “When we started doing the trial run, we saw that people were going much faster than they used to. They would get the basics and move on.”

The audio tours, however, led to job cuts. Alcatraz supported 15 full-time and 15 seasonal rangers when Weideman was hired, but now has no more than three to five rangers at a time.

And audio tours lack the flexibility of human guides, who can address specific queries at a moment's notice. U.N. guides cram through three intense weeks of training, learning everything from minute details about General Assembly seating arrangements to the history of decolonization. Accordingly, they can respond to questions on any of the hot topics that spring up at such a complex organization.

“They deal with new issues on a daily basis,” Broyer said. “To have [an audio tour] updated would be a nightmare.”

Still, in most places, audio guides are here to stay, a fact not lost on the workers they have replaced. The change was received particularly poorly by Alcatraz's rangers, who protested job losses by placing a full-size coffin in their break room. The coffin bore a sign reading, “The Death of the National Park Service.”

“Change is very difficult,” Weideman said. “It's an organization that's very set in their ways, and they didn't really understand what we were trying to do.”

E-mail: baf2113@columbia.edu