Tour guide: We're working hard to make sure visitors get a true taste of Northern Ireland life
Too many tourists are being exposed to exaggerated versions of our history, says Blue Badge tour guide Cathie McKimm
I am responding as chairperson of the Northern Ireland Tourist Guide Association (NITGA) to the article in your paper by Jim McDowell ('Belfast Guided Tours Rapped As Some Accused of Distorting History' September 11) about the standard of tour guiding in Belfast.
I'd like to set out how we share some of the concerns and to give your readers a deeper insight into Northern Ireland's professional guiding standards, as this perspective was missing from Mr McDowell's article.
NITGA was established 25 years ago, following the graduation of the first Blue Badge tourist guides in Northern Ireland. The Institute of Tourist Guiding (ITG) Blue Badge, along with the Scottish Tourist Guides Association's Blue Badge are currently deemed to be the highest and most prestigious accredited awards in tourist guiding in the UK.
The qualification was initially awarded in Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) in association with local universities and colleges, until the training of Blue Badge guides was officially handed over to ITG in London in 2002.
Since that time NITB - now Tourism Northern Ireland (TNI) - has not had an official role to play in the accrediting of tourist guiding in Northern Ireland.
All of NITGA's members have been accredited by NITB (prior to 2002), the Institute of Tourist Guiding (after 2002) or by Failte Ireland, who accredit the national, local/regional tourist guide training in the Republic of Ireland.
We also have student guides, who are all foreign language guides, and are either undertaking ITG/Failte Ireland Training, or signed up to undertake it in the near future.
Those undertaking the prestigious Blue Badge qualification participate in around 1,000 hours of home study, lectures, practical training, and familiarisation trips to all counties/tourist regions of Northern Ireland.
Students must pass several written exams, one coursework assignment, and four practical exams. In 2017, the practical examinations included a coach tour of Belfast, a walking tour of Derry City, Co Londonderry, a guided tour of the Ulster Museum and a guided tour of St Anne's Cathedral.
The Blue Badge lecture programme is delivered by top specialists in their field - the 2016/2017 course had eminent and published historians, such as Jonathan Bardon and many other esteemed experts covering a wide range of topics, including geography and geology, art, architecture, literature, economics, agriculture and many more subjects.
Our membership is approximately 80 and growing, and all of our guides are fully-trained, operate under a strict code of conduct that forbids the delivery of sectarian commentaries, or the soliciting of tips (that many of the new, free cap-in-hand walking tours subsist on).
Our members also engage annually in a continuous professional development programme to ensure their knowledge stays fresh and up to date.
We are more and more aware that many others are selling their tourist guiding services without training or qualifications. Often the emphasis is on sensational and exaggerated storytelling, peddled as 'the truth', and sometimes with a sectarian bias.
In our experience, most visitors are genuinely interested in encountering what's true and real about our culture, rather than some needlessly exaggerated, heroic episode. Our members often report the best compliments they receive from visitors after a Belfast City tour is 'I can't work out what side you're on'. Job done.
We would like it to go on record, that while our members seek to present an enjoyable and entertaining narrative, our training as professionally trained tourist guides is towards well researched facts and accuracy that comes from including diverse and varied perspectives.
Regrettably, storytellers who seek to transform elements of our history, including 'the Troubles' into exciting mythology, unwittingly perhaps, do a disservice to us all, possibly reinforcing prejudices at home and abroad.
One final point of assurance is that all NITGA members carry full public liability insurance. We are not aware what the insurance status is of many of the 'cowboy' guides referred to, but would hope at least that they are all covered by public liability insurance. Those taking their tours should make sure proper insurance and licences are in place.
As a professional guiding association, we also welcome the recent news that Tourism Northern Ireland is about to undertake a review of tourist guiding in Northern Ireland.
This review is very timely in the light of recent developments and we look forward to participating in that research.
Many European countries, like Italy, have already introduced licensing of tourist guiding. As an association, we have no official views of this.
However, at the very least, those hiring tourist guides, be they individual tourists or tour operators, deserve at least to be made aware of the risks and be assured they can depend on consistent professional standards established and certified by third party specialists, such as ITG and Failte Ireland - bodies who are prepared to stand over the quality of such guiding practices.
Likewise, official bodies promoting tourist guiding services, like our own association, or even local tourist information providers like Visit Belfast and regional tourist information centres, also, in our view, have a responsibility to only promote bona fide tourist guides, who have been properly accredited by reputable third parties, work with full insurance and according to a code of conduct that protects those buying their services.
As an association, we can safely say that the majority of tour operators, including those tour operators who deliver tours for the incoming cruise ships, understand the need for professional standards in guiding and recruit where possible professionally trained guides, or undertake their own training programmes where there are gaps in the guiding supply chain for high quality guides.
The people most at risk from ad hoc self-styled tourist guides are the thousands of individual visitors that come to Northern Ireland each year, not to mention the venue owners who suffer from their 'disinformation'.
We look forward to a more public debate and discussion in the coming weeks and months.
Cathie McKimm is a Blue Badge tourist guide and chairperson of the Northern Ireland Tourist Guide Association