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Guide Licensing
11 October 2010, 17:05
Filed under: Gettysburg, Normandy, Tours | Tags: , , ,

Recently, the folks who run Segway tours of Washington, D.C., complained to the Washington Post about the requirement for guides to be licensed in DC. I was surprised that there was any guide licensing, but I am a strong proponent of it. The rules strike me as pretty reasonable: pass a basic exam on DC history and pay a $ 200 fee. They see it as a conspiracy to keep the tour business in the hands of a few companies, rather than as a way to ensure that guides actually know what they’re talking about.

What are the arguments of those who oppose licensing of tour guides in DC?

  1. It’s a violation of free speech to prohibit them from referring to themselves as tour guides. This is like saying that it would be a violation of my right to free speech to tell people I’m a cardiologist. Anyone could claim expertise, but when you start charging for the use of that expertise, it’s no longer about speech, but about commerce.
  2. The tour guides from Segs in the City are experts anyway. Sadly, they probably aren’t. The guide interviewed for the story claimed she’d only been wrong once recently, in referring to the “founder of the Smithsonian” as Jonathan Smithson, when his first name is actually James, though she corrected herself shortly thereafter, and “it didn’t ruin anyone’s day” that she’d been wrong. Well, she did get his name right the second time, but she was wrong in identifying him as the founder. It was his money that started it, but it was 7 years after he died that it was founded. That she can’t remember being wrong isn’t proof of the extent of her knowledge. In fact, if you’re very confident when you’re wrong, people will think you’re right. If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you know that such confidence could earn you loads of money giving tours of the Taj Mahal even if you know nothing about it. Her complete lack of concern about being wrong galls me. It also wouldn’t ruin anyone’s day if she mixed up the names of the monuments, but it would still be wrong. Bill Main (the other owner of Segs in the City) stated that the Dred Scott decision “was on the books for a long time before it was changed, too,” though it was never actually overruled and was rendered moot with the passing of the 14th Amendment a mere 11 years after being written. Interestingly, I am told this same group made the same claim in Gettysburg, and failed the guide exam miserably.
  3. Some tour guides would only work one month, so the fee and background check is excessive. This is exactly the kind of people that are better off NOT charging money for tours. You have a bunch of college kids who generally haven’t lived in DC and don’t know the area, let alone have any depth of knowledge about it. Why should they be claiming to be experts and giving tours? The trouble for the unlicensed tour companies is that the fee and background check would either discourage young people from applying for the jobs (if they have to pay it) or reduce the company’s profits (if the company pays it). If someone only works as a tour guide for a month, what expectation is there that they know anything about the city? Heck, it sounds like the guides they hire are just doing it on a lark. Do we really want people who come to our nation’s capital expecting a serious, knowledgeable tour guide to be greeted by someone who only plans on doing it for a month before they go start their “real jobs”? Or do we want tours to be given by people who are professional and serious about it?

I think giving tours is a serious business and it’s one that’s incredibly easy to fake. All you have to do is be confident, talk fast and move quickly. Why is it easy?

  1. Tourist openly admit their ignorance. The tourist is in an incredibly vulnerable position. By seeking out a tour guide, one openly admits to lacking knowledge about the area. If the tour guide is very confident, but simply inventing facts, only a knowledgeable tourist would notice.
  2. In a busy enough location, reputation is irrelevant. If tourists are constantly arriving, you don’t have to worry if some of them think your tour was useless. They’ll go away and you’ll never see them again. Also, new customers will replace them immediately. Guide books or websites might help someone find a good guide or avoid a bad one, but when there’s another sucker born every minute, who cares?

So, I think licensing of guides is important and useful. What is the major benefit of guide licensing?

Some knowledge is guaranteed. Depending on how difficult you make the exam, you guaranteeing at least some level of knowledge in every guide. Gettysburg’s exam is intensely difficult, such that people devote years to studying for it, while the DC exam is apparently easy, with 91% of those taking the 100-question exam passing it. I’ve always been in favor of technical certifications because they ensure that the holder of the certificate at least knows the basics. If you have have to pay for your license, as well as pass an exam and a background check, you’re obviously going to be committed to it. It’s not something you do on a whim for a month. It makes the guiding business a career not a summer job.

Of course, what it really means is : The public can be certain they aren’t being ripped off.

I think having guide licensing would be very advantageous in Normandy. Tourists would be assured of at least a minimum quality for their guides and history wouldn’t get mangled by people who mean well but don’t know what they’re talking about.

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