Williamsburg is known for its history and with that comes the people who share that history with visitors.
But now, a new city ordinance regarding tour guide testing is raising concern about historical accuracy for some touring companies.
“People expect the truth from tour guides who are out on the street representing the town,” said David Thomas, owner of Williamsburg Walking Tours. “These tour guides need to know what they’re talking about because if tourists don’t know the town, you could tell them anything about Williamsburg and they wouldn’t know what to compare it to.”
For the past two decades, tour guides in Williamsburg were required to take a test administered through the Williamsburg Police Department as part of the certification process through the city. The test was only around 25 questions and ranged in knowledge from city history, colonial history and practical matters such as emergency contacts, Thomas said.
But on March 14, the city adopted a new amendment to the previous ordinance that would make the testing voluntary as opposed to mandatory. Along with the test was a $100 fee that covered the tour guide’s testing and background check.
The fee was required to be paid every three years but it’s unclear on the city’s website whether the test had to be taken every three years as well.
Now, if a tour guide decides not to take the test they would only have to pay $25 for the background check, said John Heilman, spokesman for the Williamsburg Police Department.
Even though it has been half a month since the ordinance was adopted, Thomas said he hadn’t even heard of it. This is odd, he said, because usually the department is extremely communicative with the handful of private tour companies in the city.
Maj. Don Janderup, who is liaison between the tour companies and the department, did not immediately respond for comment.
However, this ordinance doesn’t mean tour guides don’t have to get certified. Heilman said to become certified, a tour guide still needs to come in and apply, take a photo and go through the background check. They don’t need to provide proof of their educational knowledge of the city through an assessment.
Thomas said that’s concerning because it impacts the quality of tours people can expect.
Now, if a tour guide wants to take the test, Heilman said the purpose would mostly be to market that they have done so.
“If they take the test and pass, you could put that on your website,” Heilman said. “I think a lot of people will like to take it because it is something they can promote with.”
But Thomas said the concern is not everyone will be held to the same standard any longer. In the past, he said he has required his guides to take the test, even if they are coming from a different company and had recently taken it. He said this helps to create legitimacy to the tours.
The tour guides will still have to pass background checks.
“Given that the vast number of tours offered in the city are conducted at night in the historic area when the museum is closed, and that the historic area does not have street lighting and that the streets are closed to vehicular traffic, council finds that passing a criminal background check as provided in the city code remains a reasonable and minimal safety requirement for tour guides performing business activities on city streets in such conditions,” according to the ordinance.
Heilman said while the tour guides will no longer be taking tests, police will still be enforcing prohibited acts such as guiding a tour while under the influence of alcohol.
But even with that monitoring, Thomas raised concern for the factual quality of tours in the city.
“If someone is going to present themselves as knowing something about the history of Williamsburg, they should be tested on their knowledge,” he said. “Otherwise anyone could say they know the history and really be saying anything.”