KOCHI: The word ‘guide’ is used interchangeably with ‘tout’ in India. We could not be more wrong to do so. Even while reporting the murder of the Latvian tourist near Kovalam beach, the authorities, the police and the mainstream media referred to touts as tourist guides. It was the same a year ago with the media in north Indian reporting the rape of a Japanese tourist in Agra and the subsequent arrest of a ‘guide’. Later, the mistake was corrected through special reports.
Recent studies reveal one of the main reasons for the fall in the number of tourists to the Taj Mahal by 30 per cent is the abundance of touts (laptkas) - more than 6,000 - and their pestering approach. This being the case, the Ministry of Tourism’s professionally trained 3,000-plus regional-level professional guides (RLGs) and the respective state-level guides are left without assignments. Some tour operators too allegedly use touts bringing a bad name to the profession and giving rise to issues like drug peddling, flesh trade, illegal foreign exchange involving fake currency notes among other things.
Ranjan, a veteran German-speaking RLG, considers his profession to be spiritual. “Buddha was a guide, so was Confucius,” says the former Chennai High Court advocate who became a RLG driven by a passion for it. He has been active in the tourism industry for more than four ecades.“People do not realise the academic requirements of this profession,” said Mujeeb, an Italian-speaking RLG. “Mohanlal’s wrongly-portrayed character in Kilukkam is brought to mind when you say guide.” A RLG, on the other hand, must combine various skills, such as public relations, communication, leadership, marketing, presentation, time management and event management.
Guide training is conducted directly by the Government of India every five years, for a maximum of 20-25 people in a single batch. It requires a graduate degree. The guide licence is awarded after extensive police verification. The RLGs are “licensed to guide” only in their specified region and are strictly scrutinised, carefully selected and constantly monitored by India Tourism, and must undergo a compulsory refresher course conducted by India Tourism once in three years. While till 2004, India Tourism directly conducted the courses in their state headquarters, presently the training is led by IITTM, Gwalior or Nelloor, for India Tourism.
These RLGs in the southern region are exclusively authorised to work both as guides and as tour managers/tour leaders all over south India. There are 74 RLGs in Kerala and 269 guides in south India. Interestingly, a majority of the guides possess doctorate, professional or postgraduate degrees. Babu Varghese, who pioneered houseboat and treehouse tourism in the state, was also a RLG from the first batch in Kerala trained by India Tourism.
Spanish-speaking RLG Sabu George says, “It is a pity guides are not invited for official programmes of the Tourism Department or involved in policy-making bodies by the Central and state governments, though we are called ‘cultural ambassadors’.”Also, the qualification for ‘guide courses’ conducted by the state, district and even corporation is Plus Two or Class X. The Government of India should come out with a tourism regulatory act prescribing at least a graduation for qualifying as a guide.
In the hierarchy of Tourism Awards declared by Kerala Tourism, the guide’s position is given next to that of a driver. According to Sabu, it gives the impression that India cannot offer quality tourism up to the international standards. This has already started to divert the influx of tourists to neighbouring countries, where only approved professional guides are allowed to work.In India, even many foreign nationals illegally guide tourist groups. The RLGs have approached the authorities concerned and tours operators to safeguard their assignments.
Ajai is a travel writerSridevi is media analyst/media faculty