Should Tour Guides be Tested and Certified?

tour-guide-antwerpAt 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.

13 thoughts on “Should Tour Guides be Tested and Certified?

  1. William Hosley

    I don’t know what the solution is – but it can’t be having the govt make a hash out of it. I did my first tour guiding work in college when a friend and I volunteered to pull together and promote an architectural walking tour of our town as a benefit for the local historical society. We got the local newspaper to print our brochure gratis – got the chamber of commerce to help promote it. It was an instant success. What were our qualifications? We’d both taken a course on the town’s architecture with a gifted professor. We loved it. We walking around with repro copies of Asher Benjamin’s books – to show how builders guides influenced style. It was transformative experience for the 20-year old me – and since no one dropped off our 2-hour tours – my recollection was that folks dug it – the kind of thing that hadn’t been done before. Any barrier to entry would have strangled that in the cradle. 40 years and 100s of tours (I love doing show & tell) later and I suppose I have mastered an art. But if I had to endure a “curriculum in tour guiding and related subjects,” including “tour guide safety and geography, history, and culture” – as some agency bureaucrat images in it – I’d just drop out. THAT SAID – there are charlatans. blow hards and bozos out there and some of them are effective self-promoters – so maybe the answer is a self-policing selective admission association of tour guides – no laws, no fees – just a good earnest network of kindred spirits who could chose to exclude folks that don’t take history and content seriously; that stuff up or pass along junk info because it sells. I dunno.


  2. ahotsouthernmess

    I am usually the first person to eschew government involvement in free enterprise. I have also heard tours from qualified people that seem to forget what they learned in favor of entertaining tourists. The one thing that I do see — playing devil’s advocate somewhat — is that I worked in a city that did not require licensing of guides. Not only was tour quality an issue, but also they used facilities (roads, bathrooms, historic sites, etc.), which are often free to the public, but they made money off tours. If the city requires licensing, at least that allows them to put some back in the coffers for what the tour companies use.


  3. thehistorylist

    Max, good observations and helpful links.

    Agree completely with your reservations about any such move in this direction. This is a great example of a “problem” that is solved without the burden and intrusion of government regulations. Today, more than ever, it’s easy to read reviews and ratings of guides and firms on TripAdvisor and elsewhere. If individuals choose to ignore those or take a chance, that should be up to them.

    And a comment: In this country we have gone _way_ overboard in terms of licensing, with established companies using licensing and regulation to create barriers to entry to protect their business models and margins. Pleasantly surprised to see that California let this die.


  4. Michelle Zupan

    Savannah, GA used to require a 100 question test for their guides. Last year, a class action lawsuit was filed (and won) by guides who did not want to take the test arguing that it was “a violation of the 1st amendment right to free speech.” Savannah tours could already be a bit odd (the claim to be America’s “most haunted city” notwithstanding), so now they are just bad.


    1. thehistorylist

      Interested in learning what else you think should be done, given that. I did a quick Google search on walking tours in Savannah and came up with several tour companies with ratings, including one with 700 reviews on TripAdvisor. Seems like reviews are a good way for people to find one that’s well-suited to their interests. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be low-quality tours, but with a few minutes of work people can, if they want, know which ones to avoid.


  5. Margo Carlock, Executive Director, NAI

    The National Association for Interpretation has been providing professional development, training and certification in interpretive techniques for over 27 years. Many federal agencies, state and local park systems, museums, science centers, nature centers and botanical gardens, and historic sites utilize guides who have attained their Certified Interpretive Guide credential through NAI. We also have certification programs for those involved in advanced heritage interpretation, the management of interpretive sites, the planning of interpretive sites, exhibits and content, and those who train interpretive techniques to those who interact with the public and tell the stories. There is no need to re-invent the wheel! NAI does not train or certify to content, but rather to the communication techniques that help guides connect to their audience emotionally and intellectually, and provoke deeper thought and appreciation of the resource they are interpreting.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. mcarlock

        Yes, it is common for there to be someone (or several) in a course who do not pass. They are given an opportunity to resubmit the portion of the test that they failed.


  6. Angela Hollingsworth

    I had been a Chamber/Visitor Center director in a National Main Street community for 6 years. The tours offered in this community are done by the local Museum which is a credible source for historical information and well trained guides. I had run into issues with the constant misinformation coming from local business owners, those choosing to disseminate their brand or interpretation of history and current community information. This created a barrage of questions at the Visitor Center, which we spent an inordinate amount of time correcting people’s perceptions then trying to get the source of the bad information to be more or correctly informed. I think a local certification program (possibly done by Museum or Historical Society) could help businesses and tour operators gain revenue by being better informed and being part of the important process of authentically representing a community heavily reliant on its history as an attraction. Inconsistent information creates distrust and is less likely to create sustainable relationships with the people that are truly interested in history or an area, therefore loss in tourism dollars.


    1. thehistorylist

      That makes sense, Angela, and here’s where it would be helpful to clarify an important difference between what I think you’re suggesting and what was proposed in California and what has been implemented elsewhere: Should it be illegal for individuals not “licensed” and approved by some government entity to give tours? This is some of the worst kind of overreach. Strong local brands can create content folks can trust, and reviews on Trip Advisor as well as word-of-mouth in the community are all that’s needed for “buyers” to be able to make an informed (if they choose) decision. Let’s not arrest people for giving tours, regardless of what we think of their quality or interpretation of history.


  7. fusilier55

    I work and live in Williamsburg, Virginia where we have just such a law. I am not certain that it has changed much at all. I certainly haven’t seen much difference since our law went into effect. We do have several small independent companies doing tours in this town and even though a test had to be taken to do so they still say whatever they want when they are out on the streets.

    The point you make that quality is more than just facts is also quite true. It is common to confuse content and information with good interpretation. Defining what is meant by quality can also be a slippery slope. That is the challenge I see to simply relying upon things like trip advisor or online reviewing sites. What you or I, or those following your blog consider a quality interpretation may very well not be what the visitor finds as one. Funny stories, repeating old myths and having a good time can very well cause an interpreter to still receive high marks from the uneducated visitor. Often a visitor will rate someone high because they had fun.
    Good communication skills without content is also not good interpretation.

    Of course, if the visitor felt they got their money’s worth, I’m not certain what right I have to disagree with them!


  8. Hillary Campbell Johnson

    I have been a tour director for over thirty years and am relieved to read that the California tour guide bill died in committee. Having taken many of these licensing tests, I believe that voluntary certification is the way to go. Official tests can be white-history based, with a few African-American, Native American and other questions thrown in to give the appearance of diversity. These tests can be also designed to keep new talent out and the “old guard” in place.


Comments are closed.