Saturday, April 20, 2024

Is tour guide licensing necessary? Maybe not

Preservation Virginia Assistant Manager of Public and Educational Programs Jeff Aronowitz gives a tour to a group gathered at a dig site located outside the walls of James Fort as Staff Archaeologist Mary Anna Richardson works to excavate dirt. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)

In an area known for its history, those telling the story should be well-informed.

But each point of the Historic Triangle monitors that differently.

Recently, the City of Williamsburg passed an ordinance that would no longer require tour guides to take the test to earn their tour guide licensing. The test is still available to take voluntarily, but it is not required.

In Williamsburg, the police department administers the tour guide testing through its Professional Services Bureau, headed by Maj. Don Janderup.

Janderup did not immediately respond for comment.

“We continue to license tour guides to ensure a basic level of safety and order on public streets,” said Lee Ann Hartmann, spokeswoman for the city. “We continue to offer the testing because we still consider competency regarding the history and architecture of Williamsburg to be very important to the quality of the experience guests have when visiting the city.”

However, just next door in James City County, tour guides not only are not required to take a test, but they aren’t even required to have a license, said Laura Messer, tourism and marketing coordinator for the county.

Related story: Legitimacy of local tours in question with adoption of new ordinance

Messer said two of the biggest attractions in the county are Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne. For both, she said thousands of visitors come to the county each year and take a variety of different tours.

But the tour guides aren’t regulated by the county, Messer said.

“We don’t have a historic downtown area, like in Williamsburg, so there are really no walking tours,” Messer said.

Instead, each individual attraction, which is required to have a business license, is in charge of training their tour guides to know their specific information.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though.

“The tour guide industry has been changing in the past few decades, people are interested in all sorts of different things, and allowing the consumer to decide what type of tour and guide they want, gives them more freedom,” said Angela Erickson, strategic research director for Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest legal organization.

In 2016, through the Institute for Justice, Erickson performed a study in Washington, D.C. looking at the quality of tour guides once the licensing requirements were removed. What she found was that more tour guides entered the market and the ratings of tours were just as high as they were when the testing for licenses was required.

“It’s more than just knowing the facts,” Erickson said. “It’s about being able to tell a story and having a test doesn’t confirm that someone is going to relay the information.”

Erickson said by removing licensing requirements, the market becomes more flexible for what can be offered. Additionally, by having attractions training their tour guides to an individual standard gives them the ability to guide their tours to visitor interests.

“All a test can do is restrict entry to the tour guide occupation only to those who know and can recall a certain set of facts and stories under testing conditions,” Erickson said in her study.

Corey Fenton, who leads the Jamestown Discovery Boat Tours, said most of the guides are well-informed without needing formal testing. Fenton, who gives a majority of the tours, has educated himself through connections with history professors and constant awareness of new historical publications.

But Fenton doesn’t only discuss history on his tours, he said. Often, he educates guests on local wildlife and other aspects of nature. Messer said the rural quality of James City County is something that makes it different from a downtown area and one of the benefits of not requiring a license is there can be a variety of tours.

When visitors come to the Historic Triangle, many of them are expecting history. And the way that history is told can depend on a variety of factors, including whether or not a locality is regulating it.

“I understand that there are [localities] that want to be represented in a specific way,” Erickson said. “But history is somewhat subjective…and by allowing innovation in a historical context allows for a deeper understanding of the past.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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