Off the Licensed Track: Israel’s Tour Guides Feel Pinch From Unauthorized Competititon

Thousands work illegally, which the Tour Guide Association says deprives licensed guides of $280 million every year. Officials say the estimate is exaggerated but vows to solve the problem

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Tour guide Emmanuel Kushner discusses the holy sites in Jerusalem with travelers, Jerusalem, Oct. 21, 2015.
A tour group in Jerusalem.Credit: Aimee Rose

What does it take to become a licensed tour guide in Israel?

First pass a two-year course costing about 24,000 shekels ($6,150), spend at least 564 hours in the classroom and 84 full days visiting and studying tourist sites all over the country, pass both written and oral exams from the Tourism Ministry, pay an biannual license fee of 220 shekels and attend at least one ministry training day every year at a cost of 100 shekels.

But at the same time, thousands of people in Israel work illegally as tour guides without having done any of this.

Even though the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee discussed the problem of illegal guiding back in June 2011, and one of the harshest critics at the time was MK Yariv Levin (Likud), today Levin is Tourism Minister — but not much has changed in five years.

Every day tour guide David Sosner says he sees unlicensed guides working in such places as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

“When you’ve worked in the business for 10 years you know how to identify who is licensed and who isn’t, and we also have to wear our licenses where they can be seen. Now, when it is a low point for incoming tourism, the unlicensed tour guides are actually the ones who have work, because they sell themselves cheap, while the licensed [guides] sit at home,” says Sosner.

Unlicensed guides usually do not pay taxes on this income either and use their own private cars; but worst of all is they can even be anti-Semites and damage Israel’s image, and no one stops them, he says.

The tourism regulations state only licensed tour guides may give paid tours in Israel. Despite the great investment tour guides must make to be licensed, some of their biggest competition comes from those who work illegally, and they place most of the blame on the Tourism Ministry, which does not enforce the law against illegal guides.

This scandalous lack of enforcement has been going on for years, and despite constant efforts by the Israel Tour Guides Association almost nothing is being done about it, says the association.

“In practice, anyone can go to a tourist site and guide there, without anyone taking any action against them — while making a living at the expense of people who the government is committed to protecting their livelihood, by law,” says Sosner.

5,000-6,000 unlicensed guides

Tour guide Eli Zur says he often runs into unlicensed guides when he is working. In one case, Zur guided a trip with five buses and on each bus was a guide. But it turned out he was the only licensed guide among them, and all the others were retirees hired just to call out the names and make sure everyone was on the buses.

“At one point, the travel agent asked me to give a talk to all of the people from all the buses, because these other ‘guides’ did not know what to tell them. At first I thought it would be only at one site, but then I saw it happened again at other sites, and it turned out that each of [the guides] earned 250 shekels for the day, plus lunch, without any ability to guide,” said Zur.

In such a case, a tour guide is allowed to guide only one “unit,” in this case a bus load, so it meant four other licensed tour guides should have earned a day’s wages too, says Zur.

ITGA Chairman Benny Kfir explains the absurdity.

“How is it that the government with one hand requires a license for the tour guide profession, and justifiably sets many standards and payments, while with the other hand it does not enforce the law and allows guides to call themselves tour guides, when their training is that they are celebrities, writers or story tellers?” Kfir asks.

Tour guides deal with presenting and representing Israel and showing its good side along with the beautiful landscape, and at the same time the government turns its back on them and doesn’t abide by the law, says Kfir.

The association estimates some 5,000 to 6,000 unlicensed guides work in Israel, and the direct financial damage every year to licensed guides totals 1.1 billion shekels ($282 million).

These numbers include a wide variety of illegal guides: Some are allowed only to guide inside museums, but take groups out elsewhere anyway; others are trained to work with schools and youth groups, but are not allowed to guide adult groups or tourists; others who call themselves tour guides and organize and led groups illegally; and religious leaders who bring groups on pilgrimages to Israel and guide them all over the country. The association estimates the number of such religious groups at 2,500 a year.

The Tourism Ministry says the ITGA’s estimates are exaggerated and stem partly from counting spiritual leaders who bring their congregations as illegal guides.

“These guides come for ritual purposes and based on a historical agreement between the Vatican and Israel,” says the ministry. “These groups can be led by their priests. A few hundred such priests come with their congregations and receive permission from the church as spiritual leaders.”

Prof. Yaniv Poria, the chairman of the hotel and tourism management department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, says a serious problem exists with organized Christian groups, and the views of their leaders.

“Those who guide these groups are members of a specific Christian denomination, or those who represent themselves as such, and accompany the group, sometimes even without pay,” he says. “The income of these guides comes from fees paid by store owners where the tourists buy. The income from these fees can reach $400 a day, depending on the size of the groups and the composition of its members, which affect its buying habits.”

Places such as East Jerusalem have many illegal guides, and taxi drivers act as guides all the time. “Without any difference in religion, race or gender. You can understand the frustration of the licensed guides who invested great amounts of time and money in a license,” says Poria.

‘Why do you need a license?’

For eight years Yossi (not his real name) has given tours in his own neighborhood in Jerusalem, without having a tour-guide license. It is not his main job, and the tours make him a bit of extra cash — as well as allowing him to express his love for the neighborhood and city where he grew up and still lives.

What’s the problem? he asks.

“Why do you need a license to be a tour guide? I understand why you need a license to drive of be a doctor. It is people’s lives, and the state’s role is to protect the lives of citizens even at the price of harming freedom of occupation. But what damage is expected from guiding tours without a license? I know every building and street here. I didn’t check if what I’m doing meets the laws of Israel, because I didn’t think someone would find fault that a young man in his 20s enjoys telling about the history of Jerusalem to visitors and tourists, and also makes a few hundred shekels a month from it,” he says.

Yossi is not alone. Today you can find food, architecture, literature and other niche tours given by experts in their field — but not licensed guides.

So why do you really need a license? Kfir gives a very simple answer: That’s the law. And not only Israel has such laws, other places such as Italy, Spain, Greece and New York City have similar requirements.

The Tourism Ministry is aware of the problems, and is examining the possibility of changing the all-or-nothing aspect of the law. The world of tourism is changing and the ministry is considering allowing making distinctions not in the existing law, for example between guiding religious, historical and cultural matters, which would require a license, and niche specialties that are not part of the regular tour guide course.

Even among tour guides, some agree with the ministry. Eli Kramer, a 19-year veteran guide, disagrees with the ITGA on licensing. “The guides relate only to certain neighborhoods, make shows and characters of historical figures, or tell of specific phenomena. They are okay by me,” he says. “But I think someone who takes a group and explains about Israel needs a license.”

3,000-shekel fine for illegal guides

It is worth it for a tour organizer or travel agent to work with unlicensed guides, because they usually are paid much less. The collective wage agreement for tour guides sets a $225 a day gross rate (including all fringe benefits and taxes). Unlicensed guides are willing to work for less because in most cases they know they will make more on fees paid by merchants when their tourists buy things in the stores they bring them to. They then plan their routes so they can enter various stores they have made arrangements with. The more the tourists buy, the more the guides make — and usually in cash that often goes unreported to the tax authorities.

The Tourism Ministry said it views tour guides as an important part of providing tourism services, and therefore they need a high level of training. “The ministry conducted almost 400 enforcement inspections on a daily basis, in which about 1,000 tourist groups were checked with the goal of preventing illegal guiding.”

These checks are conducted at classic tourist sites, and also based on complaints the ministry receives, and the ministry said it fined eight unlicensed guides 3,000 shekels each. The ministry is also able to levy fines of 9,000 shekels on travel agents employing illegal guides. Fourteen complaints are being appealed at the moment and another four are being heard by the courts, said the ministry.

The ministry said Levin has instructed it to increase enforcement against illegal guiding, and it works in full cooperation with the ITGA. Last year the ministry allowed tour guides to join the enforcement process, and the ministry also pays for police escorts in some cases for those conducting enforcement operations.