At the end of last month, the California Tour Guide Act (AB 836) died in committee in the California State Capitol. If it had passed, it would have established a “tour guide certification program” through the California Travel and Tourism Commission to test and certify persons who “practice tour guiding for compensation” (it would exempt guides who work at museums and amusement parks). The bill’s authors wanted to ensure that tourists “get the most of their visit and return to the Golden State.” It’s also a big business. According to the California Travel Association, the travel industry generated $106.4 billion in revenue from visitors and contributed $6.6 billion in state and local taxes in 2012. In 2013, California hosted nearly 16 million international visitors and is expected to grow at over 5 percent annually through 2016. To support this volume of visitors, nearly one million people work in the travel and tourism industry, including 3,000 tour guides.
We can debate various aspects of the proposed law, such as the $700,000 annual cost to manage the program or the need for a criminal background check, but I was more intrigued by the requirement that tour guides must have completed a “curriculum in California tour guiding and related subjects,” including “tour guide safety and California geography, history, and culture.” How is that defined? How is that evaluated? The proposed law left the standards to the Commission, but in other places it varies widely. Depending on whether you are in New York City, New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah, or Washington, DC, becoming a certified or licensed guide can be based on merely providing a driver’s license and paying a fee, or it can require a written and oral exam on local history along with a criminal background check. While some argue it establishes credibility and standards, others feel the requirements are onerous or restrict freedom of speech (some of these cities have recently dropped their licensing programs due to lawsuits).
I’m more concerned that these certification programs reinforce the erroneous idea that a qualified guide or docent is simply a Master of Facts (see examples of Washington’s Tour Guide Test, New York City Sightseeing Guide Exam, and the Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides). A great guide doesn’t just identify people, verify dates, and present anecdotes about the past. Guides rely on factual accuracy, but that’s only the foundation. Excellent historical interpreters investigate a question—an “inquiry” which cracks open the etymological nut at the source of the word, “history”—that’s relevant and meaningful to his or her audience (it’s not just entertainment). Secondly, a great guide is conscious of safety and security, but also about organization, presentation, and conversation to create an engaging experience.
So far, I haven’t found a government agency that has the capacity to train and evaluate guides at this level—but I have seen it at individual museums and historic sites. Indeed, I recommend that all historic sites and house museums develop a regular training and continuing education program for their guides or docents that addresses content, audiences, and techniques. For those organizations that are training at a high level, perhaps there’s an opportunity to make some or all of this training available to the public or members to further enhance your reputation or earn income. For information only (no endorsements implied) are a few examples of training programs that are set up to create great tour guides and earn revenue: Savannah’s Tour Guide Institute, International Tour Management Institute, Cherie Anderson, Gettysburg and the American Civil War Academy, and Scottish Tourist Guides Association.