Tougher action needed against illegal tour guides

SINGAPORE - The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is working doubly hard to nab illegal tourist guides here, but its actions have not had much effect.

These illegal tourist guides are often foreigners accompanying tour groups from overseas. Others may be work pass holders who take on freelance guiding jobs without the requisite licence to be tour guides.

The sentiment from legitimate guides here: It is all "wayang".

This would not be far from the truth, although the STB itself wishes it were otherwise.

The board carried out 250 enforcement operations last year, up from 200 in 2011 and 100 in 2010.

It also introduced larger watermarked licence cards to make it easier for officers to detect illegal players.

Unlicensed guides face fines of up to $5,000. But not even one fine has been given out so far.

Why? When approached by officers, the illegal guides insist they are tourists providing commentary for their friends.

Guiding without a proper licence is neither a seizable nor compoundable offence. This means that offenders cannot be detained or penalised on the spot and many leave the country before investigations are completed.

Given this, enforcement operations look like the intimidations of a bull elephant seal - which meets the challenges of rivals with a showy display of size and sound, but not much else.

Even the STB, which received 122 complaints last year against unlicensed guides, has admitted that it can be difficult to detect offenders and that it has insufficient powers to enforce the rules. Some illegal guides, for instance, may conduct commentary on buses to avoid detection.

And it is unlikely that the industry will police itself.

Local travel agencies such as CTC Travel work with overseas counterparts to sell Singapore tour packages.

Each group of tourists is escorted here by someone from their home country. But the travel agencies must hire a Singapore licensed guide to conduct tours on their itineraries.

A licensed tour guide here can charge up to $80 an hour. To save on cost, many tour agencies simply don't hire local guides.

In July last year, the Government said it would tighten rules to give STB more clout to clamp down on unlicensed activities as laws now have some "inherent limitations", as pointed out by Second Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran. Changes are to be introduced by January next year.

What changes are needed?

First, STB must be able to detain those seen guiding without a licence. Their passports should be compounded until investigations are completed, with repeat offenders barred from entering Singapore in future.

Second, according to the NTUC Tourist Guide Chapter, most illegal guides here are working on tourist visas. Thus, the Ministry of Manpower should play a larger role in enforcement.

Both authorities need to work more closely together. For example, both ministries could set up a hotline for reporting illegal activities and joint enforcement teams should patrol attraction sites weekly.

A Straits Times check between 9am and 11am one Monday at the Merlion Park found 12 people guiding without a licence, most speaking in Mandarin. Of these, four were waving flags blatantly and one was shouting into a microphone.

Third, guides caught working on tourist visas should be treated like any other illegal worker. They should be detained and investigated, the appropriate fines and jail time meted out.

With STB's new-found powers (if they come to pass), those with valid work passes but not the required guiding licence will also be detained and investigated, but fined under Tourist Guides Regulations instead.

Travel agents who let their overseas counterparts use their escorts as guides should also be slapped with heavy fines.

Similar measures have been taken elsewhere. In May, 16 illegal guides were arrested in Phuket - a move following a protest by local guides. In Goa, India, and most parts of Europe, such guides can be fined and deported immediately.

In many areas of the United States - including Philadelphia and Washington, DC - guides need certificates to operate.

Even in Malaysia, it is compulsory for all tour groups entering the country by bus to use local licensed guides. Immigration officers make sure of this at the Causeway.

So why should Singapore take this issue more seriously?

Look at it from a licensed guide's point of view. They pay up to $3,000 for a six-month course, which includes assignments and language tests, and take exams conducted by the STB.

They undergo 21 hours of extra training and pay a fee to renew their licence every three years.

Illegal tour guides without training may also "misinform tourists and sometimes even ridicule Singapore's history and culture", as one labour leader put it.

One guide reportedly told tourists that university graduates were allowed to marry only university graduates here. Another said that Singapore's population consisted of mostly Malays. Others were overheard saying the country had a rampant mosquito problem, then directing tour groups to buy medication and sprays.

Illegal guides are also a safety hazard. They usually have no first-aid training and travel insurance may not kick in if laws are violated.

The tourism industry contributes 4 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. Visitor arrivals are slated to grow by 3 per cent to 4 per cent a year for the next decade, down from the 6.6 per cent from 2002 to last year.

As competition for tourists heats up, it is important to make sure the Republic remains attractive as a destination, its reputation untarred by untrained guides.

At the same time, however, Singapore's 2,336 licensed guides should not just wait for the authorities to protect their rice bowl. They, too, need to adapt and improve the tour experience. Information on Singapore's history, or how to get to its attractions, is just a click away on the Internet and available to all visitors.

To justify their fee, local guides need to offer something more - they could learn a new language, perfect story-telling techniques or design unique tours off the beaten track.

Just as illegal guides spoil the image of Singapore, so would mandatory, expensive local guides who add nothing to the Singapore experience.

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