It is no secret that some of New York City's tour guides may be lousy, most notoriously those who worked for New York Apple Tours , closed in 2001 for environmental and safety violations. Nor do many in the tourism industry respect the flimsy licensing exam that allowed for such guides. Indeed, more than a decade ago, the bus company Gray Line began a more rigorous test for its own guides.
But when the city recently upgraded its licensing exam , many of New York's professional tour guides seemed outraged, judging from a hearing last month at the New York City Council. Why?
Their biggest complaint is that all licensed guides, no matter how experienced, must take the new test. "In effect our licenses have been revoked without provocation, just cause, due process or misconduct," reads a petition circulated by some of the 200 members of the Guides Association of New York .
The issue is a contentious one; disagreement about whether to fight the test or not is one reason why the entire nine-member board of the guides association resigned on June 25.
Many guides seem to resent that the Department of Consumer Affairs has imposed this new requirement on them, while at the same time the department has not done anything to crack down on unlicensed guides -- even bus drivers dangerously doing double duty -- who bring in tour groups from out of town.
There are 1,300 people who hold tour guide licenses in New York City, though it is unclear how many of these work regularly. Most guides work either as "step-on" freelancers for bus groups (schools, packaged tours, etc.) visiting New York or on staff at companies like Gray Line. A smaller number specialize in walking tours.
"There are many kinds of guides; there is only one test," complained Andy Sydor, the shop steward for Gray Line's more than 100 guides. Independent guide Joseph Schiff, for example, specializes exclusively in Jewish neighborhoods; his tour participants are "not coming to see the Waldorf-Astoria." A proper test for him, he testified at the City Council hearing, would include asking how to tell the difference between a Hasid from Crown Heights and one from Williamsburg just by their clothing.
Among the other complaints and accusations:
1. Tour guides were not sufficiently consulted. "I don't understand why it was done in such a unilateral fashion," declared Councilmember Phil Reed, chair of the Consumer Affairs Committee, after listening to the testimony of one tour guide after another at last month's hearing, wondering why the city had not done more to hear from them first.
2. The test, with its mini-essays, is unfair to those guides who are not native English speakers (many of whom offer their tours in foreign languages), and none of the nine books that the consumer affairs department suggests as preparation for the test are available in languages other than English. .
3. The person who wrote the test has a conflict of interest because he competes in the marketplace and teaches a guide enhancement course for NYC & Company, the city's tourist bureau. Though it was the guides association leadership itself who suggested Justin Ferate, a well-respected guide, as the test writer, Seth Kamil, president of Big Onion Walking Tours, said this was "the equivalent of the Educational Testing Service asking Kaplan Test Prep to write the SATs."
4. The test contains too much trivia. Of sample questions, some guides have lambasted several such as this one:
The physical size of the Bronx is approximately the equivalent of what European city?
(a) Paris, France (b) Copenhagen, Denmark (c) London, England (d) Brussels, Belgium
This is a request, they say, that requires irrelevant knowledge of Europe. (The answer is Paris)
"You know what is not in the test? How do you get 8th graders interested in New York?" said Jane Marx, a tour guide in New York for 23 years, as quoted in a report about the debate on National Public Radio. "You can't test humor, warmth, kindness, presentation of information, silliness. And that is the essence of a good tour."
5. The test is too difficult. By the time of the hearing last month, only 36 percent of those who took the test had passed.
Consumer Affairs Commissioner Gretchen Dykstra has answers for most of the criticism. She says that some guides themselves have supported "periodic retesting" in order to keep standards rigorous, and that the new test holds to higher standards than previous ones, which were written by employees of the consumer affairs department rather than a professional guide: "We have finally brought some integrity and intellectual fervor" to the test, she said at the hearing. Besides, the files of the department are such that it is not clear which guides took which test, nor how comprehensive nor even accurate these tests were.
Dykstra is proud, she said, that "the new test captures the depth and breadth of New York's history and our contemporary culture," and dismissed as narrow-minded such complaints as the one from one tour guide that "ethnic foods don't apply to our job." She promised to look into offering the test in translation.
As for the test's difficulty, she noted that New York Post columnist Gersh Kuntzman -- not a licensed guide -- passed the test easily, getting more than 80 percent of 150 questions correct. Still, Dykstra has said, if the failure rate remains high, she will reconsider the grading curve. Guides can be retested for free until next March.
Dykstra said interstate commerce rules prevent the city from regulating tours that do not originate in the city -- those most likely to use bogus guides. Some licensed guides say that's bunk --after all, other cities exercise such jurisdiction. That issue will be aired at a follow-up hearing Councilmember Reed promised for the fall.
"I think this is a bigger issue than I had expected," Reed said. "There's something wrong here."
Norman Oder is a journalist and licensed NYC tour guide.
Three articles in this series:
â€˘ Testing The Tour Guides
â€˘ The Tour Guides Complain
â€˘ Test Your NYC Knowledge