I've been a NYC tour guide 26 years, and could be out of work until 2025

Christina in Times Square 1996 © Manuel Bruges

I became a licensed New York City tour guide in 1995. My career began on the open top of a double decker Gray Line bus, introducing the city to some of the 28 million people who visited that year. I continued to roll out the welcome mat as the number of tourists grew year after year, topping off at over 66 million in 2019. 

However, since the pandemic, tourism has imploded, disappearing almost overnight. With the city’s reliance on both national and international travelers, industry insiders are saying that tourism won’t bounce back completely until 2025.

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Christina Stanton has been to the Statue of Liberty over 500 times ©Christopher Penler/Shutterstock

It is hard to imagine New York without tourists, they are the life blood of the city. For 25 years I’ve had the joy and privilege of meeting them. I’m often with my groups 24 hours a day; singing along with them at Broadway shows, shopping for fashions in Nolita, eating cannoli in Little Italy, walking the High Line, admiring great works of art, exploring the city’s history from Harlem to the Seaport District. I considered myself a self-appointed ambassador of the city, and, like a typical guide, I took the job seriously.

New York City's top tourist sites

I’ve been to the Statue of Liberty over 500 times, and although visiting her can get tedious (juggling everyone’s cell phone to take a million pictures) I get to see Lady Liberty through their eyes — a powerful symbol of freedom that often brings tears of joy . I always felt proud and honored to be present at such a meaningful moment in their lives. I’ve taken folks to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree every year for a quarter of a century, and each visit I still “oooh” and “ahhh” along with them.

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 High Line Park, New York City ©Massimo Salesi/Shutterstock

I remember the awe I felt visiting this massive city for the first time in 1987. I was 17-years-old and a senior from a North Florida high school when we took a school trip. The city crowds and pace were frightening at first, but our young, energetic tour guide navigated us through the city effortlessly. I was fascinated by the world-famous museums, Central Park, the Empire State building, even downtrodden Times Square—maybe especially Times Square (this was before the redevelopment). I fell in love with it all—the grit, the grime, the smells, the subway. It widened my small-town eyes. That trip had a profound, awakening effect on me. As a result of that visit, I vowed to move to the city as soon as possible.

Becoming a NYC Tour Guide

At age 23, after a year of studying and visiting every museum and NYC attraction, I registered to take the sightseeing guidelicense exam. I took the test on July 18, 1995. I passed…barely. I still remember the questions that I missed: one about a local sports team (never cared) and one about the statue of Atlas at Rockefeller Center (it weighs seven tons in case you were wondering). And did you know the East River is actually not a river but a salt-water estuary? Yeah, neither did I. And I missed that one too. But I passed and was now a licensed NYC tour guide. I was thrilled.

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Christina on top deck of a Gray Line double decker bus, 1996 © Manuel Bruges

I worked for a few years refining my “patter” and style of narration. Soon I began working for student tour companies, since so many schools around the world consider NYC the ultimate field trip. I worked for hotel concierge desks, and began conducting specialized tours. I became the NYC shopping guru, taking crowds to sample sales in the Garment District, boutiques in SOHO and Nolita, vintage and thrift stores. I still marvel at the time I took a Russian oligarch’s wife on a three-million-dollar shopping spree at Bergdorf’s. I still have the snakeskin clutch she gifted me to prove it.

Lower East Side Tour

I was a huge fan of the Sex and the City television series and had even worked as an extra in one of the episodes. I began offering a “SATC” tour as well. We would go and see “Carrie’s home” and “Steve’s bar” and several other iconic spots, all while sipping mimosas and wearing hot-pink boas on the bus.

Tenement Museum Lower East Side Manhattan
 Tenement Museum on the lower east side of Manhattan ©wdstock/Getty Images

The Lower East Side (LES) tour also became a specialty of mine. That neighborhood is funky and eclectic and has something for absolutely everyone. You like food? We’d do a tasting tour of their wonderful, unique restaurants and markets, such as the Essex Market, the Doughnut Plant, Guss’ Pickles, Katz’s deli. You want fashion? This is the area of tiny boutiques with one-of-a-kind items; you’d return home with a jacket or a piece of jewelry that was truly original, amazing, and super cool.

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Katz's Delicatessen full of tourists and locals in Manhattan 2013 ©Gagliardi Images/Shutterstock

Interested in history? This area boasts one of the richest, most dense treasure troves of history in the entire city, culminating in one of the city’s best museums - the Tenement Museum. I never finished a tour of the Lower East Side without every tourist gushing with gratitude for showing them places they wouldn’t have found on their own. I’d smile and accept their accolades, but the secret of the tour’s success wasn’t really due to my skills as a tour guide; the LES is just that fabulous and sells itself.

New York after 9/11

I loved giving tours of the Financial District. When the September 11th attacks occurred, I had the unfortunate distinction of not only being a seasoned tour guide of the World Trade Center, but I also lived in the area, just six blocks away on Rector Street. I was home that morning, awakened by the impact of the first plane, and watched the second plane fly over our building in horror. But I turned that life-changing experience and my first hand account of that tragic day into an opportunity to educate the public. I became an expert 9/11 tour guide and offered weekly tours of the site. I even wrote a book about it, not only to document my experience for future generations, but also to turn my walking tour into a written form for those unable to travel to the city and see for themselves.

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Christina Stanton and her husband on their balcony overlooking the Twin Towers 2001

I became proficient at giving Central Park tours. “Why would I need a tour guide to navigate a park?” I’d sometimes hear. I’d clear my throat and respond, “Because there’s 843 acres in this park. And a lot of interesting history. Don’t you want to know more about what you’re seeing?” If they needed further convincing, I’d step on a soap box and rattle off some Central Park facts and figures. “There’s eight bodies of water, 29 statues, 21 playgrounds, 36 bridges and tunnels, a zoo, 26 baseball fields, 12 tennis courts, six soccer fields, four basketball courts…” After each tour, I realized I loved the exercise and spending the day outdoors with tourists who would quickly become friends. I’d say to myself, as I so often did, “I can’t believe I do this for a living.”

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Central Park, with Victorian Gardens Amusement Park in the distance ©Guillaume Gaudet/Lonely Planet

I noticed if the tour went well, and we had fun, they would request me as their tour guide the next time they were in the city. To be prepared for these repeat customers, I began taking copious notes after each tour. I’d jot down their likes and dislikes and any quirky thing that happened on their tour that might jog my memory when I saw them again. When social media evolved, it was even easier to stay in touch after the tours.

At one point, I realized up to 75% of my “friends” on social media were people I’ve toured. One mother/daughter duo I took on a two-hour shopping tour a decade ago comment on almost every single picture I post, and they’re my biggest supporters. Students I toured years ago have invited me to their weddings; I’ve been in touch with one in particular student, Kate from Salem, Virginia, since 2007 and I’ve had the wonderful experience of watching her grow up.

Welcome to Little Italy sign, New York City
Evening in Manhattan ©Michelle Bennett/Getty Images

Insider tips from a New York City tour guide

As the years went by, and my love for the city grew, I became a “perpetual tourist.” I was always doing research. I constantly visited new eateries, new stores, new museums, new attractions as they opened. My curiosity was never sated—and I couldn’t wait to share what I found with my tour groups. When PS Kitchen opened in Times Square, I took all my groups there. Not only is the food delicious, but 100% of their profits go to support global charities. Puglia’s in Little Italy isn’t new, but it’s my “Cheers,” and I love to expose tourists to that neighborhood-bar feel. And every visitor to New York City should carve out time to hit Chelsea Market (peruse Chelsea Market Baskets for unique and clever gift items, grab a fish taco at Los Mariscos, and go to Artists & Fleas for cutting-edge designs while you’re there!).

People on shopping at Chelsea Market urban food court
Chelsea Market urban food court  New York City © Nick Starichenko/Shutterstock

I considered myself a self-appointed ambassador of the city. I felt so lucky, spending almost every day for 25 years doing something I loved. One of the biggest joys of the job came from the tourists themselves. I loved meeting so many different people from almost every country around the globe, every demographic, and every walk of life. Although we each have different cultures, ethnicities, languages, and religions, there are so many things we can all relate to: the thrill of going up to the top of Empire State Building, experiencing a Broadway show, looking at a panoramic view of Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry.

Times Square
Times Square  May 20, 2020 © Noam Galai/Getty Images

COVID and fallout on NYC tourism

And then, 2020 happened. I contracted COVID mid-March, I believe, from someone on a tour. I was hospitalized twice and told I had a 50% chance of survival. While I struggled to live, tourism in NYC died. I watched helplessly as Broadway went dark, stores shuttered, and hotels closed. I slowly recovered, but tourism did not. Tourism is one of the largest and most lucrative NYC industries, supporting 400,000 workers and bringing in at least $46 billion annually. Job losses have affected every sector from hotels, restaurants, bars, and retail to bus companies, entertainment, and travel. Several of my fellow tour guides have left the city, simply because there isn’t any reason to stay. I left too.

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Christina Stanton touring Midtown October 2019 © Deborah Steigerwald

Sure, I’m going to miss my apartment, my job, and my income. But what I’m really going to miss is every single one of the 70 million visitors projected to come in 2021. Maybe one of them was you. I’ll miss seeing you smile as we walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, or sigh as you bite into a hot slice of New York pizza. I’ll even miss taking your pictures at the Statue of Liberty (for the thousandth time).

I’m going to miss seeing the city through your eyes with that same childlike wonder I felt when I was 17. It might be 2025 until people feel safe enough to travel. But I hope it’s much sooner. We want you to come back, and when you do, we will be waiting for you. We will get back on our buses, we will take your tickets, we will check your coats, and we will open the curtain once again.

The city isn’t the same without you. I’m not the same without you.

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