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LETTER | Should visitors be forced to use tour guides?

LETTER | In Malaysia, tour buses are licensed as bas persiaran (excursion buses) and must have a tourist guide on board when there are passengers, even if only one customer is travelling in the bus, unless exempted by the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry).

During the first Visit Malaysia Year (VMY) 1990, I was the operations manager of a leading inbound tourism company operating a large fleet of tour vehicles. Full-time staff in our Kuala Lumpur office cum garage included 15 tour bus drivers, 15 tour van drivers, and 15 tourist guides.

One day, a caller wanted to charter a tour bus straightaway for a funeral. The supervisor immediately assigned a female tourist guide who was on standby duty in the office to go with the driver. She was young and had just started working as a tourist guide after gaining her licence.

Just as she was about to burst into tears, I overruled the instruction and told her that she does not have to go, and instructed the bus driver to proceed on his own. I decided that the company would bear the penalty if the bus was stopped by enforcement officers for not having a tourist guide on board.

Earlier in 1984, I witnessed first-hand enforcement being carried out when I was on a round island tour operated by our Penang branch. Upon reaching a stop, passengers could not get out of the minibus as they were blocked by a Tourist Development Corporation enforcement officer.

As the minibus roof was low, passengers had to crouch walk with their heads bent down and stood uncomfortably when they could not proceed. The officer should have allowed passengers to disembark first and then inspect the licence of the tourist guide, which was found to be in order.

Over the past decades, tour buses leaving from or heading to airports have been stopped by enforcement officers for inspection. Such overzealous operations created a bad impression of our country for tourists that have just arrived, and departing tourists feared missing their flights.

Mercifully, there were no reports of such incidents in recent years. But tour bus operators were unhappy with private vans being used for airport transfers as enforcement was often lacking. Where there was a shortage of tour guides such as in Kuching, the authorities had to close an eye.

Under the Tourism Industry Act 1992, no licensed tourism enterprise shall employ, or obtain for a tourist or any other person the services of, a tourist guide who is not licensed under this Act or whose licence has been suspended or revoked.

The above regulation is sound as customers that have paid for the service of a tourist guide ought to get one that is professional. This is only possible after undergoing effective training and refresher courses, passing examinations, and renewing licences for languages in which they are competent.

With few exceptions, this arrangement has worked well ever since licensing of tourist guides was introduced in 1975. But as far back as 1990, the term “sitting guide” became the laughing stock when a tourist guide was hired to do nothing but sit on the bus just to comply with regulations.

It became more rampant after foreign tourist arrivals surpassed the 10 million mark in 2000 and 20 million in VMY2007. This is especially true for Korean tour groups with tour leaders and their local staff splitting shopping commissions and tourist guides receiving a minimal guide fee.

Officially, tourist guides are not allowed to receive shopping commissions as it would be too difficult to control if permitted. Nevertheless, they do, and it is unnecessary for the ministry enforcement officers to investigate as long as there are no complaints.

However, if tourists are brought specifically to one place, especially at unauthorised stops not included in the itinerary where inferior goods are sold at high prices so that hefty commissions could be paid out, the ministry should show no mercy by suspending the licence of those involved.

If sightseeing tours include shopping stops such as the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre attached to its factory in Kuala Lumpur where tourists can buy genuine-quality products without having to pay more, then there is nothing unethical for tourist guides to receive nominal commissions.

But for the sake of reaping higher commissions, some tour operators send their tour groups much further away where inferior products are offered. As itineraries are set by tour operators and not by tourist guides, commissions are also shared with those that made prior arrangements.

Nevertheless, income from shopping commissions also allows tour companies to operate daily bus tours with guaranteed departures at affordable prices. Many cities do not offer such a facility, and one of the reasons was due to the fear of being caught accepting shopping commissions.

After zero-cost tours were banned, shopping commissions had been a taboo topic, especially for China tour groups. Even as far back as the mid-1980s, some inbound-tour operators in Singapore did not charge China outbound-tour operators for providing airport transfers and sightseeing tours.

This was because they could easily earn more from shopping commissions. Later, China outbound-tour operators began offering zero-cost tours for those wishing to join tour groups to travel overseas. And if you think this is the max, you are mistaken.

At one time, local tourist guides were paying tour operators for the opportunity to handle China tour groups instead of being paid guiding fees. With China outbound-tour operators and their tour leaders plus inbound-tour operators and local tourist guides all relying on shopping commissions, imagine the pressure applied on China tourists to keep buying at various locations.

Another perennial issue that has yet to be resolved is the compulsion of having a tourist guide on board a tour bus. This is best addressed by asking: Should visitors be forced to use tourist guides?

In the past, many meetings with the ministry had involved associations representing tourist guides and tour operators, with the former taking a combative approach, which was unnecessary.

Tourist guide service provides tour operators with an additional income stream and there is no reason why they would want a blanket exemption on tourist guide. After all, many tour operators started their careers as tourist guides and some are still actively guiding, and not all guides are freelancers.

If it is a normal foreign tour group on holiday, there is consensus that tourist guide is a must. But if it is an airport transfer for airline crew, then peace and quiet would be much appreciated instead of being bombarded with commentaries by a tourist guide.

Similarly, staff of multinational corporations from around the region or globally gathered in Kuala Lumpur for a meeting would need privacy while being briefed by a superior during transfers from one venue to another, without a local tourist guide unintentionally eavesdropping.

For classification, a group could be deemed as foreign if its numbers exceed two-thirds, as it would be impractical for Malaysian executives to be excluded.

The ministry should continue granting blanket exemptions for foreign tour groups on services already waived and consider others on a case-to-case basis, such as student groups on a low budget. Doing so would encourage many of them to come and make return visits when they are working adults.

When it comes to domestic tours, there should be a blanket exemption of tourist guides as applying for a waiver on a case-to-case basis is a waste of resources and impossible to obtain approval on time, as passenger name lists keep changing up to the last minute.

While domestic tourism expenditures have grown from RM47.8 billion in 2012 to RM103.2 billion in 2019, it was largely stagnant for domestic tours, particularly usage of tour buses, as locals do not wish to pay several hundred ringgit per day for a tourist guide they do not need.

For classification, a group can be deemed as local if Malaysians exceed two-thirds, as the domestic tour market includes expats and their families staying here, foreign students and workers.

In any case, customers that paid for a tourist guide ought to be provided with someone who is licensed for the language requested. Likewise, it is only fair that domestic excursionists and tourists be given the choice and not be forced to pay and use a tourist guide they do not want.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.