Proposal for Specialised Tour Guide Licence in Hong Kong

Here's something I wrote recently, at request of Coalition for Sustainable Tourism. Came after some years railing against batty local regulations, that mean officially can't accept freelance tour guides in Hong Kong.

A Proposal for Fostering Ecotourism in Hong Kong, and so Diversifying and Modernising the Local Tourism Industry, and Boosting Livelihoods Across Hong Kong

Martin Williams, PhD (Cantab.), Former Chairman of FirstStep Nature Tours, Director of Hong Kong Outdoors, Co-producer of Explore Wild Hong Kong!
Prepared for the Coalition on Sustainable Tourism

Ecotourism – in a very broad sense

Worldwide, ecotourism – which here is a key component of sustainable tourism – is booming. Definitions of ecotourism vary; this proposal is based on broader definitions, such as:

"Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples."
- The Nature Conservancy and World Conservation Union

Hong Kong has a superb natural environment – rivalled by few major cities worldwide, and surely not surpassed or even equalled by any “world city” that is also a major tourism destination. Hong Kong has a strong tourism industry, focused on the city and a small selection of nearby destinations. Yet as many Hong Kong people are aware, there are many places and activities that might also interest tourists.

These additional places and activities are not suited to mass market tourism, so have been almost ignored by the tourism industry here. Yet possibilities abound for small-scale, wide ranging ecotourism – whether birdwatching, hiking, mountain biking, diving, taking photographs, visiting cultural and historic sites, fishing, diving and snorkelling…. Even within the city, there are opportunities for tours and activities that are more specialised, such as walking around certain districts to visit historic sites.

While the tourism industry as currently structured is unable to capitalise on the multitude of possibilities, there is a measure that can be adopted that can unleash the creativity, dynamism and entrepreneurship of Hong Kong people: the introduction of a specialised tour guide licence.

Specialised Tour Guide Licence

As the name suggests, rather than being aimed at general tour guides who typically work full-time, a Specialised Tour Guide Licence is for guides who have particular expertise, and who are likely to work as guides only part-time.

A Specialised Tour Guide (STG) Licence scheme could emulate and improve on the STG scheme in Singapore – where people who prefer to guide in a specialised field must submit a detailed itinerary of their proposed tour to Singapore Tourism Board for review. Short-listed applicants are required to conduct a preview of their proposed tour.

If approved, specialised tour guides in Singapore, “may work for any licensed travel agent or work on a freelance basis.”

In Hong Kong, too, specialised tour guides could likewise work freelance, and work for licensed travel agents as and when these agents have tourists requesting tours that are not run-of-the-mill.

It should be possible to promote tours by licensed specialised tour guides through the Hong Kong Tourism Board – which is taking measures to highlight Hong Kong’s “Natural Kaleidoscope”, though currently promotes only few tours and guides that offer such services.

Further, should a specialised tour guide contravene licensing, including by being shown to provide sub-standard services, his or her licence can be revoked (likewise, of course, any promotions of the guide through the HKTB will be terminated).

Benefits of Specialised Tour Guide Licences

Specialised Tour Guide Licences will deliver a range of benefits:

• Diversification and Modernisation of Hong Kong’s tourism industry – more places and activities on offer to tourists, plus boost to ecotourism (defined in a very broad sense), to bring the local tourism industry more inline with the zeitgeist of tourism worldwide;
• Boosting livelihoods across Hong Kong – some people may opt to try being specialised tour guides full-time, but initially at least most will work part time, whether they are students at university, or people seeking a boost to their income through introducing tourists to something they love. Additionally, businesses such as transport operators, stores and cafes in places visited on new tours will benefit;
• Benefit to Hong Kong tourism industry – as well as making Hong Kong a more appealing destination, specialised tour guides will help existing agents and tour operators to offer more diverse products, without requiring significant investments on their part;
• Testing of new tourism products – the licensing system as proposed would allow for a range of potential new tourism products to be tested; some may become mainstays of Hong Kong’s future tourism industry;
• Boost protection of Hong Kong nature and heritage – economic benefits, plus tourists’ interest in places away from the regular tourist routes, will help nurture protection of Hong Kong’s nature and cultural heritage;
• Enhance Hong Kong’s image worldwide – though Hong Kong is touted as a “world city”, relatively few people are aware of Hong Kong’s diversity. Enhanced, broad based ecotourism will help change perceptions, showing that this is a many-splendoured place. This, in turn, will make Hong Kong a more attractive destination to visitors.

 

On Friday 16 January, with three other members of CoST met members of Travel Industry Council, Tourism Commission, and Travel Agents Registry - including to discuss the above.

Odd meeting: agreed that having guides w specialities such as ecotourism, cultural tourism a good thing. But, told there could be no change to govt legislation re travel agents, which would readily allow guides to be paid directly as agents are (yeah, I know, an agent accepts money for something done by someone else; law said as much - if own or operate a service provided, you are not agent for it).

I wasn't clear why couldn't be such a change; but seemed that stemmed partly from fears of what existing agents and guides [who do regular tours] would make of it.
So, hazy agreement re working within existing rules.

Yet also, there was mention of tourism evolving. From our - CoST - side of the table, was mention that this evolution is currently not happening within Hong Kong's formal tourism industry. Indeed, with number of licensed ecotour operators falling from four to two over the years, there's been contraction in this. Instead, there's marked growth in "ecotourism" (in very very broad sense here) in Hong Kong, but outside the formal tourism industry.

Martin Williams

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