Greece’s economic situation during the global collapse was so dire that at one point, critics suggested the country sell off its famed islands to pay for its debts. The controversy struck a blow to Greek pride, but also belied a key reality; tourism might be the only industry to save Greece’s economy. Recent changes to the laws governing the training of guides in Greece, however, could prove to be as devastating to the nation’s culture, and heritage, as selling off its islands for parts.
More than its monuments and museums, the secret heart of Greek tourism lies in its guides. Trained by the state, Greek tour guides complete two and a half years of training, clocking 1090 hours of classroom time and more than 100 field trips to sites throughout the mainland and its islands.
But those state schools closed last year, and two-month training programs, available to any European Union citizen who could pay the tuition, took their place on university campuses, churning graduates with no measurable, and perhaps marketable, skills. Called “mini-guides” by the traditionally trained guides, these new entrants into a demanding industry might not be up to the task.
More than five million tourists visited Greece in the first half of 2013 alone, an uptick of 12% from 2012. While the rest of the Greek economy continues to shrink, the tourism sector stands out as a beacon of promise. Greece’s growing reputation as a value vacation destination has increased the demand for more guides, at lower prices.
“The Ministry of Tourism has changed the Greek legislation, under the pressure of big tour operators for many years, in order to have cheap labor and unqualified people guiding in the EU,” said Efi Kalamboukidou, Executive Member of the European Federation of Tourist Guides’ Association & Panhellenic Tourist Guide Federation. A certified guide in English, German and Greek, Kalamboukidou is also a tourist guide trainer with both the Federation of European Guides and the World Federation of Tourist Guides Association.
“The employers are large foreign tour operators. They go for cheap salaries and wages, and the quality is affected,” said Smaragda Touloupa, a licensed tour guide, trainer, and author of “Casting Identity in the Cultural Tourism Industry.”
Touloupa said the demand for guides will continue to grow, from tour operators who are only worried about the bottom line. “It’s a cruise. It’s a one-day tour. Unfortunately for these people (mini-guides), this is the only chance where they may have to find a job because this is where the masses go. And the masses will eat them alive. Some of them may survive, but they will eat them alive.”
There are approximately 2,000 guides trained under the previous system, although some are no longer actively working, due to retirement and other life changes. To be accepted into the state-sponsored guiding schools, applicants had to pass exams in foreign language proficiency, Greek history (its entirety), geography and the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, located in modern-day Turkey. In exchange, their tuition and living expenses were provided by the state. Prospective guides completed the program only after passing written and oral exams in all 26 subjects and exams in languages to be used in guiding.
The two-month program, however, operates as a sort of professional development crash course, a summer school for guides, which costs €800, or $1,100. As each two-month program is taught at a different location throughout Greece, the students are often required to relocate, and pay living expenses and accommodations, as well as the cost of tuition, out of pocket—narrowing the pool of applicants to those who can afford to pay for the training.
Although open to all members of the European Union with a related degree, the courses are taught in Greek.
Christos Grammatikas was one of the first students to attend the new program in the summer of 2013 at the Technical University in Thessaloniki, organized by the school’s museology department. He had graduated with a degree in history and archaeology from the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki in 2005, then obtained a post-graduate degree in ancient history in 2009. Since graduating, his work experience has been limited to a few months working as an assistant in his history department’s library, and a few months working in the office of a guiding company. He says his family supported him while he tried, unsuccessfully, to find work.
“Finding a job nowadays here in Greece is a difficult task,” Grammatikas said. “Besides, there is practically no job anywhere with guaranteed permanence or fixed salary, in contrast to how the labor market used to be, especially in the public sector, a few years ago.”
But in the tourism industry, Grammatikas finds hope. “The truth is that Greece depends largely on tourism. Regardless of the deep and long-term economic crises, tourist income is growing fast and hits new records every year,” he said. “In this job, there are opportunities for at least part-time employment, with a sufficient salary.”
Touloupa dismissed the young man’s hopes as overblown.“They are being fed with false hopes,” said Touloupa. “These people have no profession,” she said. “They are not recognized professionals. They have no long-term future.”
It would be easy to blame the European Union for its prohibition against so-called “closed professions.” After all, the European Standard for Tourism Services (EN 15565) sets out a thorough framework for training, and provides guidelines for everything from guiding someone with special needs, to work conditions, to presentation, communication, and business techniques. However, even as the standard supports efforts for free movement within the member states, it also recognizes the “importance of area-specific tourist guides to high quality provision of tourism services.” Additionally, the standard also allows a deviation for the Greek standard, which until recently, has surpassed the EU’s stringent guidelines. The new training programs, however, fail to meet the EU’s standard, let alone Greece’s.
Exactly what remains from the two-and-a-half year program in its two-month counterpart is impossible to say. According to Touloupa, the government is withholding information about the new programs, and the people taking them. It’s also unclear exactly which government agency is now responsible for the programs. Previously, the Ministry of Tourism managed guides and guide training. The new programs, taught on university campuses, appear to be under the oversight of the Ministry of Education. (Both ministers, and other government staff, repeatedly failed to return requests for comment.)
“All of these graduates from the university, I’m sure they are gifted people, with some degree of knowledge,” Touloupa said, “but this is a profession that entails well-rounded knowledge.”
To get a sense of what that well-rounded knowledge entails, one must only imagine the logistics of a visit to the Acropolis with a busload of tourists. A guide must of course not only know the history of the Acropolis, be well-versed in the controversy of the Elgin Marbles now in the British Museum, and the architecture of the new Acropolis Museum, but also where to pick up and drop off passengers, how to steer visitors with mixed physical abilities up the steep trail, speak over wind in a variety of languages, protect the resources from sticky fingers itching for souvenirs, and never, ever allow the group to look directly into the sun. All while maintaining professionalism and enthusiasm, even in the face of the crankiest customers. It’s something that the professionally-trained guides can’t imagine the fast-tracked, or “mini-guides” will be able to do successfully.
“This kind of a profession is a work of love,” said Eleni Zachariou, certified tour guide and co-founder of Vacances Travel, with more than twenty-five years’ experience leading educational tours for groups like National Geographic and Smithsonian. “You have to love the country in order to extend it so that the people who hear about the country fall in love with it, and you also have to love people. You have to take it very seriously because it’s a responsible job. You have in your hands people’s vacations.”
Those vacations can be as short as a one-day layover between ports of call, or a ten-day excursion exploring Greece in-depth. Now, tourists will have a harder time determining how qualified their guide is, or isn’t.
Previously, all guides were subject to a license that was renewed annually. That system has been eliminated in favor of an identification card system, with lifetime validity. Touloupa sees the new system as irresponsible, and further evidence that the Ministry of Tourism is washing its hands of the guides. “The new ID is half in Greek, half in English,” Touloupa said. “So you as a tourist, you cannot read whether I’m accredited. You can read my name in Latin characters, but not the rest of it.”
She’s also concerned about the lifetime renewal process. “They will give the card to us, and we will never have to go back to the ministry to renew it.” The lack of oversight could allow guides who have been convicted of crimes since their accreditation back into the ranks, Touloupa said.
Ostensibly, the ID card system applies to all guides in Greece, but while the old licenses expired at the end of 2013, the guides trained under the comprehensive program have been unable to obtain their new id cards, leaving only the newly trained eligible to guide.
The tourist guides unions have brought their case to Greece’s Supreme Court, alleging that the new rules, and the closing of the guide schools, violate the Greece constitution and European Union directives. The case is pending. The Panhellenic Tourist Guide Federation has also begun an online petition to save tourist guide training.
On February 6, 2014, the Federation released a statement once again calling for the EU Commission to urge the Greek government to reconsider its policy towards tourist guide profession and training, which it says, will have grave implications for tourists and consumers in Greece, and throughout the European Union.
But that appears unlikely. A bill introduced February 24 by the Minister of Tourism would permanently close the state-run vocational schools in Greece, and further restrict the types and locations of trainings available to guides, beginning in 2015.