Is a tour guide license required? Maybe not
In an area known for its history, those telling the story must be knowledgeable.
But each point in the History Triangle monitors this differently.
Recently, the City of Williamsburg passed an ordinance that would no longer require tour guides to take the test to obtain their tour guide license. The test is still available to take voluntarily, but it is not mandatory.
In Williamsburg, the police department administers tour guide testing through its Office of Professional Services, headed by Maj. Don Janderup.
Janderup did not immediately respond for comment.
“We continue to license tour guides to ensure a basic level of safety and order on public streets,” said Lee Ann Hartmann, city spokeswoman. “We continue to offer the tests because we still consider Williamsburg’s history and architectural skills to be very important to the quality of experience customers have when visiting the city.”
However, next door in James City County, tour guides are not only required to pass a test, they are not even required to have a license, said Laura Messer, tourism and marketing coordinator for the count.
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Messer said two of the county’s biggest attractions are Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne. For both, she said thousands of visitors come to the county every year and take a variety of different tours.
But tour guides aren’t regulated by the county, Messer said.
“We don’t have a historic downtown, like Williamsburg, so there really aren’t any walking tours,” Messer said.
Instead, each individual attraction, which must have a business license, is responsible for training its tour guides to know their specific information.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however.
“The tour guide industry has changed over the last few decades, people are interested in all sorts of different things, and allowing the consumer to decide what type of tour and guide they want gives them more freedom” , said Angela Erickson, chief strategic officer. research director for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest legal organization.
In 2016, through the Institute for Justice, Erickson conducted a study in Washington, DC, on the quality of tour guides after licensing requirements were removed. What she found was that more tour guides entered the market and tour ratings were just as high as they were when license testing was required.
“It’s more than just knowing the facts,” Erickson said. “It’s about being able to tell a story and taking a test does not confirm that someone is going to relay the information.”
Erickson said that by removing licensing requirements, the market becomes more flexible in what can be offered. Additionally, the fact that attractions train their tour guides to an individual standard gives them the flexibility to guide their tours according to visitors’ interests.
“All a test can do is restrict entry into the tour guide profession only to those who know and can remember a certain set of facts and stories under test conditions,” Erickson said in his study.
Corey Fenton, who runs Jamestown Discovery Boat Tours, said most guides are knowledgeable without the need for formal testing. Fenton, who gives the majority of the tours, formed through relationships with history professors and constant knowledge of new historical publications.
But Fenton doesn’t just talk history on his tours, he said. Often he educates guests on local wildlife and other aspects of nature. Messer said the rural quality of James City County is something that sets it apart from a city center, and one of the benefits of not requiring a license is that there can be a variety of tours.
When visitors come to the Historic Triangle, many of them expect history. And how the story is told can depend on a variety of factors, including whether a locality regulates it or not.
“I understand that there is [localities] who want to be represented in a specific way,” Erickson said. “But history is somewhat subjective…and by allowing innovation within a historical context, it allows for a deeper understanding of the past.”