4 November 2002


Press Briefing


A key objective in marking the 50th anniversary of the United Nations tours was galvanizing the valuable network of former guides and encouraging them to continue to serve as “ambassadors to the public”, said Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.

Among the many former guides who had gone on to prominent roles, he mentioned Elizabeth Dole, currently running for the United States Senate, Israeli best-selling author Yael Hedaya, and the Thai princess Wiwan Wariwan.  On the job, the guides played a pivotal role in shaping the public's perception of the work of the Organization, conveying a sense that the United Nations was ultimately their Organization.  It was hoped that that mission could continue as guides went on to other careers.

Joining Mr. Tharoor at today's briefing were, in fact, Madhur Jaffrey, a former guide from India, who later gained fame as an actress and author, Kevin Kennedy, of the Secretary-General's Executive Office, another former guide, and current guides Marian Aggrey and Daniela Lima.

Mr. Tharoor said that it was 50 years ago yesterday that the first guided tour of the United Nations was held -- on 3 November 1952, shortly after completion of the United Nations headquarters complex.  At that time, 10 young women had been hired by the American Association for the United Nations, which ran the operation until 1955, when it was incorporated in the United Nations Office of Public Information.

In the past 50 years, he said, 37 million visitors, an average of  30,000 a month, had taken the tour.  The numbers were somewhat lower this year, down 30 per cent, because of the security restrictions and a decrease of visitors to New York City that followed last year's terrorist attacks.

Mr. Tharoor said that today's guide corps included over 50 young people from 30 different countries who gave tours in 20 languages, in both national dress and uniforms designed by the fashion house Mondrian.  He said the Secretary-General maintained it was vital to do everything possible to ensure that this United Nations house remained open to peoples of the world.  The future looks ever more exciting for the United Nations tours.  Last year, the General Assembly endorsed a proposal to enhance the experience of those visiting United Nations Headquarters with a new visitors' pavilion and interactive exhibits to tell the United Nations story in a dramatic way. 

In their brief presentations, the current and former tour guides emphasized the importance of personal contact for visitors to the United Nations, the lasting impression the tour made on children, and the impact on their lives of working with a group of bright, young colleagues from around the world.

Mr. Kennedy, from the United States, was hired in 1977 as one of the first male guides.  He said that the chemistry between the diverse guides made each period's group unique.  From an exclusively feminine era, Ms. Jaffrey, who served from 1958 to 1962, spoke of the stimulating atmosphere of the guides' lounge and of a visitor's first encounter with a publicly bared midriff, through her national costume, a sari.

Ms. Aggrey, from Ghana, spoke of people's interest in meeting United Nations staff, and a child's disappointment on finding out she was not either the daughter or wife of her fellow Ghanaian, Secretary-General Kofi Annan.  Daniela Lima, from Brazil, said it was most important for her to be part of the international environment, and as an artist and teacher, to be in touch with children, who make up 45 per cent of visitors.

Asked by correspondents to clarify some of the statistics he had presented, Mr. Tharoor said that Chinese was clearly the most requested language for tours, after English, and that the average of 30,000 visitors a month was accurate. 

The 30 per cent drop-off of the past year was due to tour groups being limited in size, the building being closed during certain events and other security factors, as well as an overall decline in visitors to New York in the aftermath of 11 September, 2001.  It did not, he said, indicate a loss of interest in the United Nations.

In response to a question about opportunities to move up in the Organization after employment as a guide, Mr. Kennedy said that, despite his own example, it was not a good backdoor entrée to the United Nations.  It was, however, valuable career experience that was widely applicable. 

Asked how the tours could be improved, Mr. Kennedy said tours could always benefit by better access to areas, including the Council chambers and the General Assembly Hall, and tools that helped the guides animate their talks.  Ms. Lima said that exhibitions helped in that way. 

But all the current and former guides reiterated that the human contact was most vital.  People were most affected by stories of how the United Nations works for individual people, Ms. Aggrey said.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.