The UK Tourist Guide Sector: Time For Regulation?

Over the past thirteen years, the New Labour Government has passed 115,000 pages of legislation , introduced 24 criminal justice measures and created over 3,055 new criminal offences. This compares with only six Criminal Justice Acts between 1925 and 1985. It is now apparently an offence to import potatoes from Poland, sell grey squirrels or forget to arrange for a neighbour to silence your burglar alarm if it goes off by mistake while you are away. It is also strictly forbidden to impersonate a traffic warden – though it is not clear why anyone would wish to do so, especially after a Channel 4 TV  documentary in November exposed the vitriolic abuse to which they are frequently subjected. You may , moreover, find the constabulary on your doorstep before dawn if you presume to offer air traffic control services without holding a licence – again, a seemingly somewhat unlikely scenario. If however, you decide to set yourself up as a ‘tourist guide’, there are as yet no regulations in force which require you to have had any training or experience of this type of work. You can sleep soundly with little prospect of your door being kicked in – except perhaps by clients dissatisfied with the service you have provided them.

Under the Points Based System (PBS) which took effect as from March 2009, only those Language Schools which have been accredited by the British Council, the BAC (British Accreditation Council) and similar organizations on the Home Office’s approved list are authorized to enrol students from overseas. The procedures include checks on the qualifications of the teaching staff employed at such educational establishments. ‘Unite’, Britain’s largest union, is strongly of the view that a similar verification system should be applied to the tourism industry and be “in place by the time of the 2012 London Olympics when Britain will be visited by millions of tourists”. In March 2009, they issued a joint press release with the APTG ( The Association of Professional Tourist Guides)  declaring that “ There should be a proper regulatory framework to stop tourists being ‘ripped off’ by people masquerading as professional tourist guides” and that they were together formulating a regulatory policy to present to the Government and other interested organizations which will include a code “ensuring that the public are fully protected under the health and safety legislation”. As Tony McDonnell, Unite/APTG Joint Chair, has pointed out “An untrained guide can ruin your day with their haphazard knowledge and make a serious dent in your wallet”.

 The Government is well aware of the importance of tourism for a country having to deal with long-term indebtedness . This makes it particularly puzzling that they have not taken the action recommended by Unite /ATGP to protect  the industry’s image and reputation. VisitBritain envisages there may have been a decline of around 0.7% in the number of overseas visitors (31.7 million) to the UK in 2009 as the result of the global economic slowdown. This has been offset, however, by the ‘Staycationers’ – the 20% rise in the number of Britons who decided to take their holidays within the UK rather than go abroad. The result was a 13% increase in domestic vacation expenditure compared to the previous year. This shift has been reflected in the latest available statistics for London: The number of visitors to the capital from the USA and Japan continued to drop in 2009, but Italians and French were up, the Spanish were down ( due to their own severe recession) and though there were fewer German visitors they spent slightly more. According to the ‘Evening Standard’, one group of crucial visitors remain “a notable absence”. Business travel, which “tends to be the highest-margin source of income to the capital’s hotel and transport industries, fell by a quarter in the last three months of 2008”. The article anticipated numbers to have been even lower in 2009.

The London Development Agency (LDA) has acknowledged “both the great challenges and opportunities “ currently facing the capital’s visitor economy. In August, it launched the London Tourism Action Plan 2009-2013 with the objective of “exploiting the spotlight of the 2012 Games” so as to ensure that London “maintains its position as a leading destination for international leisure and business tourism”. The European Tour Operators Association (ETOA) , however, has warned that Olympic host nations can sometimes experience a reduction in tourism levels leading up to and after the event : “The presence of the Olympics deters regular tourists: They perceive that the city will be full, disrupted, congested and over-priced”. ETOA executive director Tom Jenkins added that “ Olympic visitors tend not to be big consumers of sightseeing excursions; neither are they committed visitors to museums, historic monuments or other classic tourist attractions”. Such downbeat comments are unlikely to deter either the LDA or the many APTG Blue Badge Guides who are preparing themselves for a very busy 2012. For any of them to take time off during or prior to the Games would be akin to shop-owners and restauranters in Southfields (the nearest underground station  to  Wimbledon Tennis Stadium) sending their staff on holiday for  the Wimbledon Fortnight.

Since 2005, Sally Empson, an experienced Blue Badge Guide, has been running courses for people likely to be involved in showing tourists around the Olympic site. Ninety signed up for the one starting in January 2010. Most of them are London-based but include guides from other regions of the UK.  The Olympic Delivery Authority is already using Blue Badge Guides to take groups on walks around permitted sections of the Olympic Park: “There are some very good viewing points where they can see what’s going on. The whole area is bristling with regeneration”. She attributes Government inertia on regulation for the tourist guide sector to the lack of pressure from a “really strong lobby group”. Some guides had “their busiest year ever” in 2009, whereas others found it very quiet. It depends partly on the range of language skills and which countries the visitors come from. Anyone wanting to guide in another language has to take a test set by the Institute Of  Tourist Guiding which was established in April 2002  “as the standard-setting body for the whole tourist-guiding sector.” It does not run courses itself, but “provides or accredits examinations and makes awards to successful candidates, including the internationally recognised Blue Badge”. At least 50% of guides, says Sally Empson, offer another language. This is confirmed by the 2009 APTG Members’ Register. Among the listed membership , 98 speak French, 52 German, 50 Spanish, 49 Italian, 22 Russian, 13 Japanese and 10 Portuguese. Several are fluent in two or more of these.

The APTG was founded in February 1998 to represent London’s registered “ Blue Badge” tourist guides, requires them all to adhere to a professional code of conduct and publishes each year minimum fees which they are all expected to uphold . The charge for a half-day (maximum four-hour) tour in English, for example, is fixed at no less than £120 and in any other language, £139. A full day (up to 10 hours and finishing no later than 18.00 hrs) costs  from £190 (in English) or £215 ( any other language). A guide offering two languages can ask for at least £190 (half day) and £285 (full-day). For three languages, this rises to £240 (half-day) and £380 (full-day). The Blue Badge courses run in London take two years to complete on a part-time basis: Two or three evenings a week and all day Saturday. The final exams are held in the February of the second year. Enrolments average about 40 per course, of whom around 35 attain the qualification. Though this would appear to entail the APTG Members  Register getting bigger every year , in practice (says Sally Empson) the number of working guides remains fairly stable. Many of them have other activities,take time off once they’ve passed the exam or simply prefer to work just occasionally. They have to be careful, though, not to get ‘rusty’:  “ They’ll soon find they’re not being offered any work. There’s no way of monitoring quality among free-lancers: If you’re good, you’ll  get commissions. If not, you won’t.”  As they are self-employed, there’s  no fixed retirement age. They can ( and some do) continue well into their ‘70’s, so long as they can still move around in a reasonably brisk fashion. Slow-moving and wobbly wouldn’t quite match up to the demands of the job.

The total fee for the two-year London Blue Badge course is now around £3500. Some of the students have to work part-time both to survive and pay their way. The cost comprises the  teaching plus   “entrance fees, coach travel as part of the training, core knowledge CD and other course learning material”. Unlike those applying to UK universities, the rate is the same irrespective of whether or not  the students come from European Union countries.  The syllabus is designed to provide  them with “ a wide cultural background of Britain” plus an in-depth knowledge of London and sites frequently visited from the capital, Guiding Techniques (“ communication and presentation skills for guiding on foot, on site and from a moving vehicle”) and Business Skills (“learning to work as a self-employed guide within the tourist industry”). The courses outside London tend to be slightly cheaper and shorter. The North-East Blue Badge qualification covers places such as: York, Durham, Newcastle & Gateshead, the South-east one: Devon, Cornwall & Somerset, and in the North-West: Manchester, Liverpool & parts of Yorkshire. Some regions offer ‘Green Badge’ training paid for by the City Council or the local Information Centre. The scheme “is the mark that the guide has specialist knowledge of the area”.

In London, once the guides have obtained their Blue Badge, they can “do all kinds of endorsements” for sites such as Parliament, Somerset House, York Minster and Canterbury Cathedral as part of their ‘Continual Professional Development’ (CPD).. The APTG runs a programme of CPD events throughout the winter months. Each lecture costs £6. “Guides go to them all the time”, affirms Sally Empson  “ as they need to keep up-to-date”  ‘The Original London Sightseeing Tour’ and the Big Bus Tours London’ companies appear to have adopted a somewhat different approach .  Phone calls to them regarding prospective employment on their open-top buses as from April 2010 elicited the response that for successful applicants there would be an initial induction period of two weeks followed by regular on-the-job training. On their websites they both emphasize the necessity for their Tour Hosts / Guides to maintain “ high levels of customer service”.

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Travel | Posted on February 10th, 2010 by Colin D Gordon

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