Multilingual tour guides struggle as pandemic upends industry

“One, two, dong!” shouted a woman in her 60s guiding a group of online tourists using virtual reality technology.

On this signal, three Australian tourists moved their bodies in front of their computers as if striking a temple bell.

It was part of a trial of an online tour conducted in December that featured the Engyoji Temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, which in real life sits on Mount Shosha in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture.

“The tour was conducted online, but it didn’t seem like a one-way communication,” said the woman, who works as a nationally licensed interpreter guide.

“I felt we could do more interesting things” in the online tour, she said. “We could do things together, like ring the temple bell.”

The Japan Tourism Agency commissioned “Kanko guide kasseika renkei kyogikai” (the association to cooperate to boost the tour guide industry) to conduct the test, one of many new initiatives aimed at creating job opportunities in line for tour guide interpreters amid the pandemic, which has dealt a devastating blow to their industry.

The association was established last year by eight companies and organizations, including West Japan Marketing Communications Inc. of the JR-West Group. She plans to do similar trials with 13 virtual trips, including one to Himeji Castle, to help create new online tourism packages and put guide performers to work.

LEFT TO DEPEND ON THEMSELVES

Guide-interpreters have struggled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because their customers are foreign tourists, the revival of domestic tourism driven by the government’s Go To Travel campaign has not benefited them.

A 38-year-old man living in the northern Kanto region who lost his job as a guide-interpreter now earns his living working part-time at a nearby supermarket.

He does not hide his concern about his future.

“I would like to work again as a guide-interpreter once the foreign tourists come back,” he said. “However, I am not optimistic even if the surge in infections will subside one day.”

After graduating from a university in the United States, he passed the exam to become a nationally licensed tour guide in 2012 in hopes of putting his English skills to good use.

Throughout his working life, he was able to take around 4,000 foreign visitors from countries such as the United States and Australia to Japan’s tourist hotspots, including Mount Fuji, every year.

“The purpose of the job is to create a good feeling towards Japan, so it was very rewarding,” he said.

But the pandemic has changed everything.

The number of foreign visitors, which exceeded 30 million a year in the pre-COVID-19 era, plummeted and his work disappeared.

He asked for the government allowance for people forced to miss work due to the pandemic. His annual income has dropped by almost half compared to before the global health crisis, when he earned around 6 million yen ($52,000) a year.

The Go To Travel campaign, which helped temporarily revive domestic tourism, did not send him back to work.

“Guide interpreters are left alone in the tourism industry,” he said.

NEW LOBBY EFFORTS

Japan has two main types of licensed interpreter guides. Nationally licensed interpreter guides are accredited by the government after passing an exam to test their knowledge of tourism-related topics, including Japanese history and geography, as well as their foreign language skills.

The other type, interpreter guides holding a regional license, have been approved by prefectures or municipalities to carry out tourist guide activities in specific areas. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, as of April 2021, there were approximately 26,000 nationally-licensed guides and approximately 3,600 regionally-licensed guides in 40 regions.

Shortly before the pandemic hit in 2018, the Japanese government began allowing unlicensed guides to start working to cope with a surge in foreign visitors. But the Japan Tourism Agency treats them differently than those with accreditation.

In October last year, several interpreter-guide groups established the “Japan Association of Interpreters and Guides” (Tsudanren), to lobby for help amid the current health crisis. She submitted an application in December to the Japan Tourism Agency for increased financial assistance to guide interpreters, as well as training support to improve their skills.

According to the group, the pandemic has probably cost 20 to 30% of interpreter guides, mainly the youngest, their jobs.

“If the government is serious about its declaration that it will become a ‘tourist nation’, interpreter guides who can accurately communicate Japanese history and culture are essential resources,” said Masahiro Sumikawa, president of Tsudanren. “We would like to ask them for support, including that which will be needed after the pandemic is over. »

VIRTUAL TOURS A LIFELINE, NOT A FIX

Mikiko Horikiri, 51, who works as a nationally licensed interpreter guide for English-speaking visitors to Kagoshima Prefecture, launched online tours for foreigners in 2020 with the help of travel agencies.

She visits scenic spots, such as Sakurajima Island, and broadcasts the tours live from her smartphone. So far, several hundred people have attended the approximately 100 tours she has organised.

Yet these online visits do not significantly increase her income and she now earns only about half of what she earned before the pandemic.

“I don’t know if visitors to my online tours will come to Kagoshima after the pandemic is over,” she said. “However, I want to do my best. I hope these tours will work out positively for me.

Partly due to the sharp decline in foreign visitors due to the pandemic, the number of people taking the exam to become a nationally licensed guide-interpreter has fallen each year.

But guide-interpreters say that to reach the estimated number needed for the post-COVID-19 era, Japan will need to train more guides proficient in foreign languages.

The KIX Senshu Tourism Bureau, which includes 13 municipalities in the southern part of Osaka Prefecture, has teamed up with the Tokyo-based Inbound Tourism Guide Association to hold three-day training courses for new recruits. guides in January.

They invited 60 people to attend the courses, intended to train English-speaking, Chinese and Korean interpreter guides. About 150 people applied.

Around 30 people trained as English-speaking guides took part in a simulation exercise in Kishiwada in Osaka Prefecture, alternating the roles of tourists and guides.

They visited local sights, including Kishiwada Castle, with guides explaining local sights, such as traditional Japanese-style wooden houses, in English.

Shinya Nagata, a 34-year-old company employee who took part in the course, said the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were what prompted him to use his foreign language skills by working as a guide-interpreter. He said he hopes to work as a tour guide at the Osaka Kansai 2025 Expo so he can promote Osaka Prefecture to visitors.

Saki Tanaka, a third-year student at Osaka City University who also participated in the course, said she wanted to work in a job where she could “promote the culture of the Kansai region.”

The 21-year-old added that she thinks the people skills required to be a guide are also transferable to other jobs.

The Inbound Tourism Guide Association has released a skills map for guides in 2020, which lists 25 skills and abilities needed to be a tour guide, including the ability to make tours more engaging for visitors, the ability to listen people and internet technology skills.

Yuki Hiratsuka, the association’s general secretary, said she wants to foster an environment where different types of guides can use their diverse skills to help meet travellers’ needs.

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