“You never get a second chance to make a first impression – and to many people, their first impression of the United Nations comes in the form of a tour guide,” said Deputy-Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, addressing approximately 50 former tour guides from the 1960s who gathered in the Delegates’ Dining Room for a reunion luncheon recently.
Organized as a private reunion by the former guides themselves, it was an opportunity to reconnect with old friends, reminisce and see what had changed since the heyday of Guided Tours.
The United Nations was still quite a young Organization in the 1960s -- in 1964, for instance, there were 115 Member States (Malta, Malawi and Zambia joined that year), U Thant was Secretary-General, and the President of the General Aseembly (19th session) was Alex Quaison-Sackey of Ghana, the first Black African to serve in that position.
1964 was also the year the Beatles first came to the United States, Diet Pepsi was launched, and it was the year of Mo-town and the “beehive” hairdo. Questions on tour at the time revolved around decolonization, industrial development (UNCTAD was established in 1964), and China’s first nuclear test that year. In 1964, there were six peacekeeping operations (UNEF I, ONUC, UNYOM, UNTSO, UNMOGIP, and UNFICYP). Of these six, the three latter ones are still ongoing today.
While many of these subjects – peacekeeping, non-proliferation and nuclear testing, development – are still an important aspect of the tour today, the talk and discussion over lunch revolved more around stories of "womanizing" supervisors, working nightshifts during the World Fair, and the very pragmatic and entirely apolitical camaraderie in the guides’ lounge in times of the Cold War.
For Guided Tours, 1964 was an absolute record year with 1.2 million visitors. In anticipation of large numbers of tourists flocking to New York for the World Fair, 72 additional guides were hired, bringing the total to 130 from 42 countries, speaking 35 languages between them.
Today, there are 17 guides (including 5 men) from 15 countries, speaking 11 languages. In 2013, there were only 160,000 visitors, primarily because of significant access restrictions due to the ongoing construction (due for completion in the fall) and security considerations.
The former guides marvelled at the calibre of the current guides and were surprised to see male guides! All of them reflected with great fondness on the lifelong friendships that were forged among tour guides, and on the sense of “family” and “homecoming” they felt when they visited the current (temporary) guides’ lounge after their tour which followed the luncheon.
In his remarks, Mr. Eliasson outlined the significant challenges facing the United Nations today: the Sustainable Development Goals, finding a political solution to the crises and Ukraine and Syria, climate change, and putting human rights at the heart of both peace and development efforts. The Deputy-Secretary-General also thanked the former and current tour guides for their important contribution in telling the UN’s story to millions of visitors (an estimated 42 million since guided tours started in 1952) over the years.