Shutdown 2013: Tourists Seek Out Less-Famous Historic Sites in Philly
Holly Jean Holst, park ranger at Independence National Historical Park, places a sign on the door of the Liberty Bell pavilion on October 2, 2013, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Alejandro A. Alvarez / Philadelphia Daily News
Philadelphia is fortunate in that it has enough attractions and cultural allure that visitors will come even with the Liberty Bell closed. Rural towns outside national parks are not so blessed.
Anne McLaughlin, director of tourism at Old City’s Christ Church, spent years handing out Beyond the Liberty Bell pamphlets to encourage visitors to see Philly’s less-famous historic sites.
Thanks to the government shutdown, they no longer have a choice.
“We’ve had a lot of people coming up and thanking us for staying open, being very grateful,” McLaughlin said between greeting German tourists.
Visitors from abroad, school groups and long-haul charters routinely plan trips to the city well in advance. Flights confirmed and time off reserved, they’re still coming to Philly to glimpse American history, just not necessarily at 6th and Market.
“I bought my tickets for the Liberty Bell online off the park website,” said Paul Thompson, a finance-and-contracting specialist with Australia’s government. That was months before ours shuttered Independence Hall.
“They’re useless now,” he said while visiting Elfreth’s Alley, the nation’s oldest residential street.
More than a dozen hours of air travel got him close enough to the bell to snap a pic from the street.
A Historic Philadelphia news release notes that Independence Mall typically sees about 10,000 visitors a day this time of year. Tourism officials don’t have solid numbers, but many of the museums and landmarks surrounding the mall have noted a modest uptick in visitors as the shutdown enters Day 10.
The National Museum of American Jewish History, on Independence Mall, is effectively operating for tips to welcome those rejected at the Liberty Bell.
“We thought it was the right thing to do to provide a service for the community,” said Yael Eytan, the Smithsonian-affiliated museum’s head of marketing. A sign out front advertises “pay-what-you-wish” admission, as does its website.
At the nearby Betsy Ross House, a charter bus last week ended up off-loading 150 visitors who originally had hoped to get their taste of American history in Washington, said Cari Feiler Bender, a Historic Philadelphia spokeswoman.
The private, nonprofit National Constitution Center has remained open throughout the shutdown and has had an increase in the number of groups seeking to book visits in recent days.
“Our daily visitation remains strong and typical of the same time period in previous years,” said Steve Rosenberg, vice president of marketing at the center.
“We have, however, seen an increase in groups coming to the National Constitution Center as an alternative to previously planned itineraries. Groups usually book their visits anywhere from one to nine months in advance. However, we are accommodating requests for 24-, 48- and 72-hour notice.”
Many more of the national capital’s historic attractions depend on federal funding than Philly’s, according to Crystal Hayes, a spokeswoman at the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A school group traveling from Irvine, Calif., found out firsthand how pervasive the shutdown was in D.C. when the group was turned away from the U.S. Supreme Court and Library of Congress buildings.
“We ended up having to just drive around them and look at them,” said Mark Ferraro, a trip leader with Vista Verde Middle School. His group shifted the bulk of its six-day trip from D.C. to Philly as the shutdown dragged on.
Attraction proprietors sympathized with their counterparts at the Liberty Bell, but saw a silver lining in the shutdown forcing visitors to expand their Philly itineraries.
“It certainly has encouraged [tourists] to look beyond [Independence] Mall at some of our local historical sites,” said Patricia Wilson, president of the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Thompson, the Australian tourist, still got to see one of his favorite American landmarks outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art — the Rocky statue.
(c)2013 the Philadelphia Daily News. Distributed by MCT Information Services.