Gotham Gazette

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The Tour Guides Complain


Three articles in this series:
• Testing The Tour Guides
• The Tour Guides Complain
• Test Your NYC Knowledge

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 "In effect our licenses have been revoked without provocation, just cause, due process or misconduct," reads a petition circulated by some of the 200 members of the Guides Association of New York .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:
• Testing The Tour Guides
• The Tour Guides Complain
• Test Your NYC Knowledge

Testing the Tour Guides


Three articles in this series:
• Testing The Tour Guides
• The Tour Guides Complain
• Test Your NYC Knowledge

What is the tallest building outside of Manhattan? Is the Ansonia Hotel famous for its performing seals or a rooftop farm? Which famous New Yorker invented the telephone - Alexander Graham Bell, Giuseppe Garibaldi or Antonio Meucci?

To be an official New York City tour guide you not only have to be able to answer these kinds of questions, but to expound on the topic with details, dates, and lore - and wow out-of-towners and native New Yorkers alike.

New York is one of the few cities in the United States that requires tour guides to be licensed. But when I took the tour guide licensing examination years ago, it became apparent that the source material used was out of date. Fortunately, I caught the errors in the test and was able to prove my case. My experience was far from unique.

As bad as the errors was the assumption in the test that being a tour guide was an endless litany of sound bytes. A tour guide can never be effectively replaced by an audiotape, though you would not have known this from the old test.

That is why I was happy to accept the assignment from Consumer Affairs Commissioner Gretchen Dykstra to construct a new examination for tour guides. It took me over two months of long days and nights, until my mind was swimming, and questions would come to me in dreams.

Many issues needed to be addressed in the new examination. Since there are no "official" training programs for New York City tour guides, applicants often demonstrate a wide range of backgrounds, orientations, and knowledge. To resolve this disparity, there are suggested readings from several major tour texts: Gerard Wolfe's New York: 15 Walking Tours, the classic Blue Guide New York, or Christine Metzger's New York. In addition, there are several New York City web-sites strongly recommended for study purposes.

All questions on the tour guide licensing examination are mini-commentaries, so that the tests become a learning tool. Each question includes a little "story" that will hopefully become part of a sightseeing guide's tour presentation.

Tour guides must be able to speak fluently on a range of topics from screen idols to architecture and from fine art to fine dining. A tour guide must be knowledgeable and flexible to accommodate the widely varied needs of different audiences. That's not all. As the chief representative of the client, a tour guide must direct the bus driver, interface with clients, resolve emergencies, know where buses may legally drive, coordinate admissions, make lunch recommendations, and find the elusive clean restroom - all while creating an imaginative route and providing sparkling commentary. (Not bad for a position that, in some major quarters, pays less than $13 an hour)

That is why the 150 questions on the examination cover a wide range of topics, among them:

  • Legal Tour Bus routes / Legal Passenger pick-up/drop-off locations
  • General New York City Knowledge
  • New York City History
  • New York City Neighborhoods and Landmarks
  • Ethnic Studies and Immigration
  • Museums, Art, and Culture / Music, Theatre, and Dance
  • New York City Literature
  • Religion and Religious Sites
  • Architecture and New York City Planning
  • Ethnic Foods
  • Public Sculptures of Noted People
  • Residences of Noted People and "Walks of Fame" in the City

A number of tour guides, including experienced professionals, have voiced several concerns about the test. [See The Tour Guides Complain by Norman Oder]. Commissioner Dykstra has indicated that she has already moved towards addressing these concerns. I also feel that some seem to have misunderstood the intentions of the commissioner.

The new professional licensing examination will not be an easy one for those unfamiliar with the city, but it should present few problems to the majority of experienced and dedicated tour guides. The goal of the test is to enhance the quality of tours, and thus increase the public understanding and appreciation for the glories of New York City.

I designed the following quiz especially for Gotham Gazette readers who want to challenge their own New York savvy. They are not the exact same questions as those offered in the professional licensing examination for tour guides, but they tap into the same vast treasure trove of New York City legends and lore. "I should like to live a lifetime on every street in New York," the short story writer O.Henry once said. "Each house has a drama in it."

Justin Ferate, formerly the director of tour services for Gray Line New York, has been offering tours of New York for more than 20 years.

Books and websites for tour guides

Three articles in this series:
• Testing The Tour Guides
• The Tour Guides Complain
• Test Your NYC Knowledge

Resources for Tour Guides


Blue Guide New York
General NYC guide
von Pressetin Wright; Miller and Seitz
W. W. Norto 2002.

A Possible Blue Guide Alternative: New York
General NYC guide
Christine Metzger
Konemann 2000

New York: A Guide to the Metropolis
Walking tours of New York City
McGraw-Hill 1994

NYC and Company Official NYC Guide
Obtainable at no cost from NYC & Company,810 Seventh Avenue

Start and Run a Profitable Tour Guiding Business
Another option is to borrow this, or a similar book, from the library.
Braidwood, Boyce & Cropp
Self-Counsel Press 2000


• NYC Department of Transportation
• NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority
• MTA Arts for Transit

Optional list of texts:

AIA Guide to NYC
Willensky & White
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 2000

Ethnic New York
This excellent text is currently out of print, but is available in lending libraries. Copies may be purchased via and other used book sources (Ethnic histories, neighborhoods, food, and merchandise) This book can prove to be a valuable text for tours.
Passport 1996

Manhattan,Block by Block: A Street Atlas
Tauranac Maps 2000

Great for tour routing.

The Food Lover's Guide to the Real New York
The Food Lover's Guide is out of print, but is available in libraries. Copies may be purchased via and other used book sources.) Other sources may also be used. The examination asks a few questions about descriptions of popular ethnic foods.Alperson and Clifford
Prentice Hall 1987.

Guide to Manhattan's Outdoor Sculptures
Out of print, but available via and other used book sources.
Gayle & Cohen/ Prentice Hall

The Street Book
Origin of Manhattan street names
Fordham 1990.

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