Tour Guides in Québec City: to permit or not to permit?

Tour Guides in Québec City: to permit or not to permit?

LiQM_Mar2017_CoverThis article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Simon Jacobs

Just before the end of the legislative year in 2015, Québec City announced that it would no longer require tour guides to have permits.

After an unexpected public outcry, the city announced it would suspend its decision until the issue could be studied further, asked interested parties to deposit memoranda and laid out a timeline for roundtable discussions.

It then appeared to abandon the process, commissioning Université Laval to carry out a study instead. At press time, more than a year later, no clear decision on the future of the permit program has been reached.

You’ve probably seen one somewhere around town, most likely in Vieux-Québec, walking, arm raised, clutching an umbrella or holding a flag: the tour guide. In his or her wake are a flock of tourists, gazing around, taking pictures, straining to listen.

But not all tours are the same. Many guides, most of whom are considered independent contractors, also give private tours, work on tour buses and lead bicycle tours, food tours or other specialized excursions. Most of them work for one or more of the larger tour operators, such as Destination North America, Tours Voir Québec or Maple Leaf Tours.

In 1986, Québec City council passed a bylaw requiring all guides to have a permit. According to Pierre Richard, director of studies at Mérici College, which runs one of the city’s two tour guide certification programs, the current licensing system was created in response to a lack of quality guided tours.

“It’s almost the perfect system, since it places the onus on the guide to pay for the training, thus giving them a vested interest in the process,” he says. The city is responsible for issuing permits to people who pass the certification course, and the cost of the course is paid by the aspiring guides themselves. “There is a guarantee of quality, [a guarantee that] the guides have some historical knowledge, as they’ve passed the exam,” says Richard.

Certification takes 150 hours of study over six months, and the training is only offered at two CEGEPs, Mérici College and St. Lawrence College. The majority of the students are older, retired or semi-retired; they attend classes twice a week starting in mid-fall and take their final exams in April. The intensive course covers all sorts of material: the city’s indigenous heritage, the early explorers, the French and British regimes, the fortification system, rivers and ports, architecture, religious heritage, historic sites and monuments, local politics and many other subjects. The students also develop skills in specific guiding techniques. “It’s not just about history,” says Marie Côté, an experienced tour guide and head of the certificate program at St. Lawrence. “You need to know what will keep the clients’ interest, make sure the clients get the best information [and] really show what life is like in Québec.”

According to Statistics Canada, close to 70 per cent of all tourists who visit Québec City come from within Québec, with 8.4 per cent coming from the rest of Canada, 10.3 per cent from the U.S. and 11.5 per cent from overseas.

However, these figures can be very misleading. Tourists from outside Québec spend on average close to $500 per person per visit during a two to three-night stay, and they are the guides’ main clientele. “I would say 95 per cent of the people who take a guided tour do it in English. Quebecers aren’t interested,” says Sébastien Ivers, owner of Tours Voir Québec.

Out-of-province visitors rely heavily on guides. A guide is probably the person tourists will spend the most time with during their visit. Many first-time visitors only come for a day or two, and a positive first experience is key in their decision to return for a longer visit. They also have a strong influence on their friends and family, with the potential of creating new visitors – but only if their first experience is positive.

Québec City has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, with one of the oldest colonial histories on the continent and many well-preserved historic sites that cry out for interpretation, such as the world-famous city walls, the Monastère des Augustines in Vieux-Québec, and the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires church and the Petit-Champlain neighbourhood around it, just to name a few. “Guides are ambassadors [for the city] and are underappreciated by the authorities. Guides aren’t valued by Quebecers,” says Ivers. “Now, with the rise of technology and smartphones, people think [technology] can replace a tour guide.”

The guiding industry has developed enormously since the permit requirement was adopted in 1986. Besides tour guides, there are now books, apps and downloadable guides, among other options. The way people book trips and get information has drastically changed as well. In the past, most trips were booked through a travel agent, who also took care of “extras” such as guided tours. With the advent of the Internet, far more tours are booked directly online by travellers, and sites such as TripAdvisor classify tour companies and their guides according to ratings from travellers.

The problem with this highly competitive market is its low profit margins. Companies are trying to trim any and all extra costs. That is why the decision to repeal the permit requirement has rung so many alarm bells: certified guides worry that the incentive to hire a guide who has not been accredited, at a presumably lower cost, will be enormous.

Moving forward

A consultation group was created when the city first announced plans to repeal the permit requirement. It was made up of representatives of the Québec City Professional Tour Guides Association (known by its French acronym AGTQ), the teaching institutions and some of the major companies that employ guides.

“We were meeting to discuss the solution to a problem that we hadn’t identified, that we didn’t deem to be a problem,” says Ivers, who is a member of the consultation group. He thinks the AGTQ had been pressuring the city to enforce the bylaw, and had written to tour operators in Toronto and Vancouver to advise them of the permit requirement. In response, Destinations Canada, the government agency that promotes Canada as a tourist destination abroad, and the Pacific Asia Travel Association wrote a letter to the city saying the permit requirement was discouraging tour companies from visiting Québec.

“They saw this as putting up barriers, restraining groups from coming,” says Ivers. “Tourism Québec went to China not so long ago on a commercial mission, the premier was there … and they invested a lot, so for them, when they see those little guides down there writing to tour operators and telling them their guides need a licence, in their minds, they are counteracting the attraction of more visitors to Canada. We know the Asian markets are growing, especially the Chinese market, and since 2010 China has considered Canada as an official destination.”

According to Laurent Bourdeau,  holder of the Québec-Charlevoix Research Chair on Tourism Attraction and Innovation at Université Laval and co-author of the study commissioned by the city, the main reason behind repealing the permit requirement was that it had become impossible to enforce.

“Thirty years ago, when a tour bus came into the city, the tour was most likely conducted in English or French and there were fewer tourists… all sorts of languages are spoken on tours nowadays, so the police are not in a position to know if there is a tour or not,” says Bourdeau.  He stresses that there has been no cut to the policing budget, but with a multitude of languages and tour companies, it is no longer possible to enforce the permit requirement fairly. “When the police issue a ticket, they have to make sure their case would stand up in court. How can they verify that an actual tour is taking place and that the guide is actually talking about Québec when they don’t understand the language?” he explains.

For the moment, the city seems to have backed away from the idea of dropping the permit and is looking at the possibility of a two-tier system. A meeting with the tourist bureau, city officials and the authors of the various memoranda was held on Jan. 31 with the promise of more to follow. One thing is for sure:  the number of tourists coming to Québec City is growing. More cruise ships are including the city in their itineraries, and it is winning many awards as a destination of choice.

Louise Labelle, president of the AGTQ, insists on the importance of the licensing system for the quality of guided tours. “Would you feel safe in a city where no driving licence was required? It just means that you will have a better chance of orderly driving,” Labelle says. “We don’t agree that people without any training or permit should have the same privileges as those who have gone through the education program.”

She feels that certification should only be offered by the CEGEPs, that the permit should remain a requirement and that guides should only work for officially recognized employers. She also emphasizes that enforcing the permits requires political will. “If the city can [enforce permits] for tour buses and street performers, why can’t it do the same for tour guides?”

The writer is a licensed tour guide.



About Author

Simon Jacobs

Originally from the UK, Simon Jacobs has been living in Quebec City since 1989. He played viola with the Quebec Symphony Orchestra for 20 years before moving on to become the Executive Director of the Morrin Centre. Currently studying for an MBA at Laval University, he is also a certified Quebec City tour guide and a historian specialising in the Jewish history of Quebec City. He is the current president of the Québec Anglophone heritage network.

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