Tour guides are fighting a bill that they say will not only harm their incomes but also devalue the experience of millions of visitors to Israel.
They say that the Tourism Services Bill, which would allow individuals other than licensed guides to work in the profession, will downgrade the quality of service and potentially warp the picture of Israel that tourists take home.
Ministry figures show that 2.18 million people visited Israel in the first six months of this year – up 19 percent over the same period last year, and up 49% over the first half of 2016. Tourism from the Far East has grown by 69% over the past two years.
At present, if foreign tourists wish to use a guide, he or she must be licensed.
Licensed tour guides have to pass a challenging exam at the end of an intensive two-year course.
The course, which costs thousands of dollars, covers everything from art, architecture and archaeology to history, religion, and flora and fauna, as well as first-aid and tour planning and logistics. (The course will be cut to one year from January, because of the quantity of information now available online, but the exams will remain at the same high level.)
Furthermore, to renew that license, qualified guides must undergo additional training annually. In return, they can charge upwards of $240 a day for their services.
The only other people currently allowed to guide are those trained by specific sites such as museums and national parks – the Israel Museum and World Holocaust Remembrance Center at Yad Vashem, for example. In these cases, they can only guide within the premises of their particular organization.
The Tourism Services Bill — due to be discussed by the Knesset Economics Committee on October 17 ahead of its second and third readings in the plenum — seeks to replace the existing 1976 law of the same name, which was followed by a jumble of amendments and regulations and is seen as confusing and out of date.
The bill insists on the use of licensed guides to “ensure quality of service – mainly in the case of foreign groups – to ensure Israel’s image as a welcoming country.”
But other clauses in the draft legislation contradict that wording.
Guides specializing in foreign tourists object to a clause that would allow groups that speak a language “not common among tour guides in Israel” to use someone from their country as a guide in order to avoid “imposing the double costs of hiring a tour guide and a translator.”
They are also angry about a move to permit a “spiritual shepherd” — defined in the bill as “a Christian religious leader who is authorized by the church” — to lead pilgrims without a licensed tour guide, so long as the “main purpose” of the visit is “religious ritual.” Such a provision could both devastate their profession, they say, since most tourism in Israel can arguably be characterized as “pilgrimage,” and profoundly change the nature of the narrative tourists are told as they tour the country.
The bill’s definitions are to be honed and polished by an advisory committee that will include tour guides’ representatives, if the bill becomes law, The Times of Israel was told.
In its explanatory notes, the bill — which also seeks to standardize and regulate the awarding of stars to hotels and guesthouses — says that enshrining the rights of the “spiritual shepherd” in law will “prevent infringement of freedom of religion and worship.”
Yoni Shapira, chairperson of Moreshet Derech, the Tour Guide Association for Incoming Tourism, estimated that there are already four to six non-licensed guides for each licensed one operating in Israel — among them priests, pastors and group leaders doing double duty as guides — and that the bill, if passed, would encourage many more.
Shapira estimated that there were some 5,000 active licensed guides in the country, out of a total of around 13,000.
Licensed tour guides have plenty of stories to tell about the way poorly informed people leading groups can distort the facts.
In one case, an illegal guide in Jerusalem’s Old City was heard claiming that a replica of Jordan’s famous Madaba map was the original, and the Israelis had stolen it.
Another guide from an Orthodox Jewish organization asserted that the Western Wall was the only remainder of the Jewish Temple; actually, the Southern Wall, too, survives as a retaining wall of the Second Temple complex, and the Western Wall itself extends much further than the section accessible at the prayer plaza.
In a third case, Chinese tourists were seen touching the walls of the public restroom at the Western Wall plaza in veneration as if they were sacred, and taking the two-handled vessels used by Jews to ritually clean hands at the site to imbibe tap water that they thought was holy.
Shapira said he had heard a Polish priest telling pilgrims at Yad Vashem that the heartrending images of Jewish Holocaust victims they were about to see resembled “what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.”
“We’re not trying to shut anyone out,” said Amos Garbatski, a veteran licensed tour guide representing Moreshet Derech in its dealings with the Knesset bill.
“Our main claim is that it’s in the interest of both Israel – the host country — and those visiting to provide quality assurance and consumer protection by ensuring the use of licensed guides, especially with groups.”
In countries as varied as Egypt, Turkey and China, all groups entering via tour agents are obliged to hire local guides, he said.
In EU countries, a licensed guide from Sweden can legally guide in Germany but is obliged to add a local guide for any specific heritage site listed by the individual country he or she is visiting, he added.
“A Catholic priest is not allowed to guide at Santiago de Compostela, for example. He can lead a mass there, but he cannot drive around, nor can he say a word about the site itself,” Garbatski said. “Nobody but a licensed Greek guide is authorized to buy tickets to the Acropolis in Athens.
“The guide is the agent for the experience the tourist will have of the country,” he continued.
“It’s the guide, rather than the hotel or the food, that determines whether visitors are satisfied with their trip – and that’s backed up by statistics.”
“But the guide is also the person who makes it all happen,” he continued. “If a tour agent just provides a bus and a hotel, who is responsible if a visitor gets sick or falls?” Garbatski said. “Who is going to deal with problems that arise? In addition to providing knowledge and an experience, we provide the technical envelope – the logistics, timetables, knowing where to eat, speaking the language and understanding the local culture.”
Shepherds of the spirit
He said it was “totally out of line” for the Tourism Ministry to use “freedom of religion and worship” to justify enshrining the rights of the hard-to-define “spiritual shepherd” into Israeli law.
“We don’t interfere in people’s agendas,” he said. “But we can add a lot. An evangelical pastor may know the Bible by heart. But we are the ones who can connect the scriptures to the land and enable contact with its people. And pilgrims are also tourists.”
Predicting legal challenges from Jewish and Muslim religious leaders also seeking the rights of “spiritual shepherd,” Garbatski estimated that up to 80% of tourism in Israel could be regarded as a form of pilgrimage, including every bar mitzvah group led by a rabbi.
The proposal to enshrine the rights of “spiritual shepherds” into law stems from a historical claim by Catholics and Franciscans that they have guided pilgrim groups for centuries and do not need others to muscle in.
In the 1980s, when relations between Israel and the Vatican were more fragile, Israel agreed to let priests guide unhindered. In 1987, the High Court ruled that the loophole to the 1976 legislation was “reasonable.”
But although a Foreign Ministry spokesman said the ministry had never issued an official opinion on this matter, a source closely involved in the evolution of the new bill told The Times of Israel that anchoring the loophole into legislation via the new bill was not necessary to please the Vatican today.
The source said Foreign Ministry officials had made it clear that relations between Israel and the Vatican were now sufficiently strong to weather obligating priests to take licensed guides along with them.
Lost in translation
When it comes to groups that speak a language not common among Israeli guides, a tour operator who works with groups from China said it would be better to allow English-speaking Chinese students to come to the country for defined periods and to pay them minimum wage to translate what a licensed Israeli guide was saying.
But the Interior Ministry, which issues visas, would not even discuss the idea, he said.
Licensed guides who primarily serve the internal Israeli market will face much tougher competition if the Tourism Services Bill becomes law.
In its current form, the bill insists on the use of a licensed guide to ensure “meaningful guiding” only where groups of at least 25 Israelis have booked a vehicle via a tour agent.
It also allows for organizations such as government ministries and NGOs such as nature-based field schools to act as tour agents and provide their own guides.
Benny Kfir, chairman of the Israel Tourist Guide Association, which represents incoming and domestic tourism, said the effect of the law would be to do away with licenses for tour guides altogether.
Ilan Shchori, a licensed guide who mainly deals with Israelis, said that by allowing unqualified guides to take the work of qualified ones, the bill contradicted other laws protecting freedom of occupation.
“I have no problem with chefs, archaeologists, or academics of any kind who draw an income from their professions taking their students to see things that are relevant,” he said. “I do have a problem with them being paid for it and doing it at my expense. This is my livelihood. If I took clients from a chef’s restaurants, he or she would be furious.”
Shchori, ranked 31 out of 243 guides for his specialist Tel Aviv tours by Trip Advisor, said unqualified guides were already affecting his income and that the Tourism Ministry was failing to act against them and to protect those like him because it did not employ enough inspectors.
“Lots of people take materials from my website on subjects such as the Sarona Market or graffiti, then they use it for their own tours and charge less than I do.
“Out of ten groups wanting to do one of the tours that I originally created, six come to me and four to the unlicensed guides.“
Danny Amir, chairman of the Israel Tour Operators’ Association, asked rhetorically, “What would happen if they deregulated the legal profession tomorrow?”
He said that the tourism industry was doing “holy work” to give visitors the best experience of the country, yet tourism was not accorded the recognition it deserved as a professional front-line ambassador.
Giving the law ‘teeth’
Lior Farber, professional adviser to Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, told The Times of Israel that the issue was not lack of enforcement but lack of legal teeth to bring lawbreakers to justice.
The bill aimed to strengthen the protection of licensed tour guides for foreign groups, he said, while relaxing the rules for Israeli tourists, who are familiar with the country and do not always need a licensed guide.
Under the old law, it was hard to prove in court that someone guiding without a license was earning money for it. Under the new proposal, the ministry would be able to fine tour operators and bus drivers if there was no licensed tour guide on board.
Farber said that officials were still deliberating over a number of controversial issues, among them the definition of “spiritual shepherd,” the circumstances and threshold above which Israeli tourists would have to employ licensed guides, and the criteria to be set for guides without licenses.
On the lack of Israeli speakers of certain foreign languages, Farber said that making it compulsory to employ both a translator and a guide could deter incoming tour groups already paying a high price to visit Israel.
Because of the dire shortage of Chinese speakers, he said, the ministry ran a course of several weeks to give basic information about Israel to Chinese speakers already in the country to enable them to guide on buses.
Farber said that officials were discussing the idea of financial incentives to encourage speakers of certain foreign languages to complete the full licensed tour guide course.