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BY KAITLYN MEADE | Originally published Oct. 8, 2013 | The top deck of the Miss Ellis Island was crowded with sight-seers on a sunny Tuesday morning — one week into the government shutdown. But its lower two decks were completely empty of passengers as the ship pulled away from its Battery Park dock.
As a “nonessential service,” the National Park Service is currently in limbo, bringing national monument operations to a grinding halt. And with Congress stalled over the budget and debt ceiling, things are looking no better for tourists hoping to get up close and personal to one of America’s foremost monuments, Lady Liberty — and no better for the tourism industry’s employees whose livelihoods depend on getting them there.
Statue Cruises, which runs ferry service out to Liberty and Ellis Islands, is one of the companies that ceased its primary function on Oct. 1, and a week later, is still adrift. The company is offering a one-hour tour of New York Harbor, giving tourists a glance at Liberty, Ellis and Governors Island, but not docking.
“Welcome, welcome. Sixty-minute tours. Sixty-minute tours only,” Marco Bedoya called, standing by one of the hastily-constructed ticket taking booths on Oct. 8, pausing to explain the shutdown in French to a well-dressed couple.
Things are “working,” according to Bedoya, who said that business has been slower since the shutdown but “we’re still doing the same, trying to make more signs and keep the customers,” he said. “We’ve put three signs outside [near Castle Clinton], and we’re trying to make more.”
“The thing is with the harbor cruises, we have other companies doing the same, so we have more competition. It’s hard, even for them, even for us,” Bedoya said.
One week earlier, on the second day of the shutdown, Bedoya had said he hoped the shutdown would end soon, even as they strung wires to allow the company to sell and scan tickets in small booths rather than in Castle Clinton, which is also run by the Park Service.
The ticket booths are still up, and Castle Clinton remained behind barricades this week, along with the now-unnecessary security screening tent.
Statue Cruises employees instead hawked brochures for harbor tours, and explained to tourists that even though the statue was closed, the ferries were still running.
“We’re trying to keep as many of our employees working as possible,” said Rafael Abreu, a spokesperson for the company. He said they had four vessels running from Battery Park and two from New Jersey.
However, business has declined, with only about 50 percent of the usual passenger count for this time of year.
“You can’t really time it, but it couldn’t be worse timing,” Abreu said, referring to the fact that the Statue was closed for eight months for repairs after sustaining damage during Hurricane Sandy a year ago. It finally reopened on July 4, with a massive Parks Service celebration.
At that time, officials and senators crowed over the event, saying it would bring back much-needed tourism revenue to Lower Manhattan. A report released February by the National Park Service showed that in 2011, 3.7 million people visited the monument, bringing in $174 million and providing for over 2,000 jobs.
In a teleconference on March 19, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer had said, “Being open for the summer tourism season isn’t just important symbolically, it’s a boon to the city’s economy and businesses, as the statue attracts millions of tourists from all over the world to our shores.”
Now, many of the tourists coming to see the statue turn away empty-handed.
Statue Cruises is allowing passengers who had purchased Statue of Liberty tickets before the shutdown to redeem them for harbor tours. They will also allow ticket-holders to wait for a later date, but that is not always possible, especially for Crown Access tickets, which are date-specific.
“Some people, they are staying for nine or ten days, can try again. But there are other customers who want their money back,” Bedoya explained.
“We came from Texas,” said Gilbert Valencia, standing near the docks in Battery Park on Oct. 2 with his mother and sister. “I came [to the Statue of Liberty] last time I was here. I wanted to take them.”
Their five-day drip was ending the next day.
“Maybe next time,” he said, with a disappointed glance at his mother.