The importance of the role of tourist guides in the bigger picture of our economy is often sadly overlooked. Guides influence the economy indirectly by introducing a positive picture of our country.

Providing a balanced view of South Africa, giving proper and correct information, and providing continuous excellence in customer care so that visitors will have a positive experience during their visit, need a dedicated, passionate, skilled, educated, focused individual with a vision for the country.

Would all of the above be possible for an untrained, uneducated, unqualified person? Without proper training a person would be inept at doing what a trained, legally registered tourist guide should be able to do: educate, entertain, enlighten and direct the visitors’ power of observation to the truth about the country.

Illegal tourist guiding is not unique to South Africa.  To keep this industry well regulated, reliable and professional, attempts are made worldwide to train and register guides to equip them for their important task.

Our company conducted official inspections of tourist guides in the workplace all over the Western Cape for four consecutive years and we still regularly get random calls from guides in the field about observed illegal activities. Over those four years it became clear that illegal guiding was in fact, slowly but surely, decreasing in the Western Cape. 

However, my questions are: Did the data reflect the true situation? Was it a case of the inspectors not being at the right place at the right time or did the people who were conducting tours illegally know when and where to hide? Or are there deeper questions about the law that need to be addressed?

The last of these questions needs to be addressed first. What exactly constitutes ‘illegal guiding’? During my tenure as General Secretary in attempting to establish the Tourism Union, TUSA, certain changes to the Tourism Bill were suggested, especially regarding a clearer definition of what a tourist guide is. However, no changes have been made to the Bill and to date the definition still is a grey area.

There have been and still are two ways to address this situation. Firstly, establishing a registered union for tourist guides will open the way to sectoral determination so that people who are in the field could give regular input to refine the definitions of the different role players in the industry.

Secondly, should the attempts that have been going on for years at great cost to the initiators, to establish a professional body for tourist guides, bear fruit, there would be an instrument to assist in tracking the legality of guides. Also, offering the opportunity for legal tourist guides to update their knowledge and skills through a credits system, will improve the sector’s status and sift the professional guides from people who guide illegally. For more information, see http://www.iptgsa.org. These attempts sadly have been stalled due to red tape.

Addressing the first question above: it is impossible to do inspections from a distance. Inspections should be done locally at all the tourism hot spots and not by visiting inspectors every now and then, but by permanent local inspectors.

What should be done in the meantime to prohibit illegal guides from giving a sub-standard experience to our guests?

Firstly, the Bill has to be updated to give a clearer definition of what a tourist guide is.

Secondly, inspections of illegal guides should be ongoing all over the country and done by (nationally) trained, permanently employed local inspectors who should have the power to do spot fines in their own area.

Thirdly, these inspectors could be assisted by a central call centre with a database of all inspectors. Operating guides could report any suspicious behaviour here and local inspectors would then be contacted to act immediately.

The role of tourist guides is too important to South Africa as a whole to allow people who are unfit to do the guiding to keep operating. Standing together in this industry could do a lot to improve the current situation.