Tour Guide Testing Gets Tough

Tour guides in San Antonio don't just have to remember the Alamo — they have to pass a 254-question test about the city before they can lead fanny-pack-wearing sightseers around town.

In the summertime, tour guides may seem as common as mosquitoes, but tougher testing to obtain touring licenses has some urban pied pipers up in arms.

Pointing out the Statue of Liberty may not seem like a job that requires a special certificate. However, licenses are required of tour guides in cities such as New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Savannah, Ga., and New York City, according to Carolyn Hennessee, president of The National Federation of Tourist Guide Associations (search).

And while there's no national standard for guides, individual cities are increasing the requirements for getting licensed.

"Different cities have gotten much tougher on what they require," Hennessee said.

The increasingly difficult standards demanded of professional guides are taking the fun out of tours, according to New York City guide Jane Marx of (search), who has been showing tourists the nooks and crannies of the city for 23 years. 

"A good tour is 25 percent education and 75 percent entertainment and that's what's wrong with this whole approach," she said.

In the Big Apple, some find the new guide test, which was updated last month, rotten for several reasons including the fact that previously licensed guides must take the test no matter how long they've been leading tours.

Marx, who has offered everything from walking tours of Harlem to a movie lover's bus tour, is working with others to try to get the 2003 test revoked.

The new test is 150 questions and covers topics from ethnic food to historical facts. In comparison, the New York Police Department's exam is about 85 multiple-choice questions, according to the recruitment office.

However rigid, the city stands behind the updated exam.

"This new test will ensure that our wonderful guides maintain the highest standards possible and will contribute to the future success of the city's $25-billion tourism industry," Cristyne Nicholas, president of the city's tourism marketing organization, said in a statement.

But Gotham guides actually might have it easy compared to those in other cities around the country.

Guides in San Antonio (search) are certified, not licensed (meaning a tour guide organization instead of the city oversees them) and prospective leaders must take a 254-question test after an intensive six-month study period.

And in Savannah, Ga., where there are about 250 licensed guides, wannabes are required to pass a 225-question test which "takes a good two hours" to complete, according to Kathy Howard, supervisor for the motor coach permit office.

"We want to make sure they know their stuff before they go out there and talk about our city," she said.

New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (search) Commissioner Gretchen Dykstra said in a statement, "tour guides serve as the city's unofficial representatives and often are the first face a visitor may see — it's crucial that they are as knowledgeable and accurate as possible."

And even if guides conduct niche excursions such as food walking tours or music tours, they need to know it all, said Hennessee, just in case inquisitive tourists inquire.

"You learn architecture even if you aren't giving an architecture tour because you never know what you are going to be questioned about," Hennessee said.

However, Hennessee concedes that there's only so much that can be tested to prove a guide's ready to hit the trail: "You can have all the knowledge in your head, but not be able to stand up before a group and present it."

And guides like Marx, who are against the tougher tests, say that's the real point: Exhaling endless data and dates or passing a written exam does not a tour guide make.

A great guide offers "learning propelled by humor and warmth," she said. "This is not a college class, you aren't going for your Ph.D. — you are on vacation."