After 42 years, Washington's Tourmobile company makes its final run

By Eric Fiegel, CNNUpdated 1st November 2011
Tourmobile guide Mel Bruce says it was a pleasure to show visitors around his hometown, Washington, D.C.
Just moments after departing Washington's Union Station, as the tour bus drove past the U.S. Capitol, Mel Bruce made an announcement to a handful of tourists.
"Most sadly for us, we close the doors after 42 years of service. Today is the final run for Tourmobile," said Bruce, a tour guide for Tourmobile Sightseeing. The company announced that Monday would be its last day of operation.
The company claimed unique status among tour operators in the nation's capital by having the exclusive contract for sightseeing bus tours of Arlington National Cemetery.
For many Tourmobile employees, the end of the line means more than the end of a job.
"It was just a shock, we were just stunned by it," Bruce, 63, said after dropping off a group of tourists at Arlington.
For Bruce, giving brief history lessons to out-of-towners came easy, since growing up in the area gave him the chance to witness history firsthand.
"I was at the Lincoln Memorial with my family to hear firsthand Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his 'I Have a Dream' speech," Bruce said over the loudspeaker as the bus drove past the newly dedicated memorial to the civil rights leader.
Bruce became a tour guide for the company in the summer of 1972 -- when Tourmobile was in its third year of business-- but he left after four years to try his luck on Broadway. After a 33-year absence, he returned in 2006.
Much remains the same, he said. "Everyone in the world is still eager to see the sights that they have only seen up to now in paintings, books and magazines."
According to the company's website, Tourmobile, which started operations in 1969. employs 300 seasonal workers and serves "upwards of 2 million riders annually." The tour buses take visitors to many of the capital's most famous sites, including the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the National Mall.
What's next for the company is unclear. "We are currently unable to provide any information regarding future tour services," a message on the company's website said.
Bruce blamed the company's demise on the sagging economy and more competition in the area offering similar services.
Starting Tuesday, wlth Tourmobile no longer running, there will be no bus tours for visitors at Arlington National Cemetery until a new contract is awarded through bidding that will be overseen by the National Park Service.
The cemetery covers 624 acres and has 4 million visitors a year, many of whom may find walking the sprawling hallowed grounds too difficult.
The park service hopes to have a new tour bus company in place before the end of the year.
"This is a bittersweet time for the (National Park Service) and Tourmobile, as they have faithfully served the needs of millions of visitors for over 42 years," said Steve Whitesell, regional director of the park service's National Capital Region. "Times change, and we are ready to enter a new era for visitors to access our national parks in greater Washington."
Tourist Gretchen Neu, from Racine, Wisconsin, was visiting Washington for the first time and could not imagine touring the cemetery on foot.
"Absolutely not. I mean, you have to have some mode of transportation other than your own car," Neu said, sitting on the Tourmobile bus as it left the cemetery. Families with loved ones buried at Arlington National Cemetery and those with disabilities will still be able to drive their own cars on the property.
Another thing that set Tourmobile apart from other tour operators was the type of buses it used -- more like trams that are common at theme parks.
The red, white and blue Tourmobile trams that many Washingtonians have become used to seeing came from Universal Studios in California. "They are truly relics of a whole other era," Bruce said just before making his final trip of the day. "It seemed that that operation worked so well in California that they wanted to try it out here, and that's how it was born."
What was born over 40 years ago is coming to an end, but Bruce said he's not ready for retirement and wants to keep showing off the place where he grew up.
"I greet the world every day, and it's a privilege for me to show the world my hometown," he said.