Internet Marketing

Multilingual tour guides struggle as pandemic upends industry

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Written by publisher team

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

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

It was part of a trial of an online tour conducted in December that showcased 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 feel like one-way communication,” said the woman, who works as a national licensed guide interpreter.

“I felt that we can do more interesting things” in the online tour, she said. “We could do things together, such as striking the temple bell.”

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

The association was set up last year by eight businesses and organizations including the JR-West Group’s West Japan Marketing Communications Inc. It intends to do similar trials with 13 virtual trips, including one to Himeji Castle, to help create new online tour packages and put guide interpreters back to work.

LEFT TO FEND FOR THEMSELVES

Guide interpreters have struggled since the onset 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 did not benefit them.

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

He does not hide his anxiety about his future.

“I would like to work again as a guide interpreter once foreign tourists return,” he said. “However, I’m not optimism, although the surge in infections will calm down someday.”

After graduating from a university in the United States, he passed the exam to become a national licensed guide interpreter in 2012 with the hopes of making use of his English language skills.

Throughout his work life, he was able to take around 4,000 foreign visitors from countries such as the United States and Australia every year to tourist hot spots across Japan, including Mount Fuji.

“The job’s aim is to create a good feeling toward Japan, so it was highly rewarding,” he said.

But the pandemic changed everything.

The number of foreign visitors, which topped 30 million annually in pre-COVID-19 times, plummeted, and his work disappeared.

He applied for the government’s allowance for people forced to take leave from work due to the pandemic. His annual income has dropped by almost half from prior to the global health crisis, when he earned about 6 million yen ($52,000) a year.

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

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

NEW LOBBY EFFORTS

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

The other kind, regional licensed guide interpreters, have been approved by prefectures or municipalities for tour guide work in specific areas. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, as of April 2021, there were around 26,000 guides with national licenses, and about 3,600 regionally licensed ones in 40 areas.

Not long before the pandemic hit, in 2018, the Japanese government had started allowing unlicensed guides to start working to meet an increase in foreign visitors. But the Japan Tourism Agency treats them differently than those with accreditation.

In October last year, multiple groups of guide interpreters established the “Japan Association of Interpreters and Guides” (Tsudanren), to lobby for aid amid the ongoing health crisis. It submitted a request in December to the Japan Tourism Agency for increased financial aid for guide interpreters, as well as support for training to improve their skills.

According to the group, the pandemic has likely cost 20 to 30 percent of guide interpreters, mainly younger ones, their jobs.

“If the government is serious about its declaration that it will become a ‘tourism nation,’ guide interpreters who can accurately communicate Japanese history and culture are essential resources,” said Masahiro Sumikawa, Tsudanren chairman. “We would like to call for support for them, including ones that will be needed after the pandemic ends.”

VIRTUAL TOURS A LIFELINE, NOT A FIX

Mikiko Horikiri, 51, who works as a national licensed guide interpreter for English-speaking visitors in Kagoshima Prefecture, started online tours aimed at foreigners in 2020 with help from travel companies.

She visits scenic spots, such as Sakurajima island, and livestreams the tours from her smartphone. So far, several hundred people have attended the approximately 100 tours she has organized.

Still, these online tours do not provide a substantial boost to her income, and she now earns only about half of what she made before the pandemic.

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

Partly because of the sharp decline in foreign visitors due to the pandemic, the number of people taking the exam to become national licensed guide interpreters has dropped every year.

But guide interpreters say that to meet the estimated numbers needed for the post-COVID-19 era, Japan will need to train more guides who have foreign language skills.

The KIX Senshu Tourism Bureau, which consists of 13 municipalities in the southern part of Osaka Prefecture, partnered with the Inbound Tourism Guide Association based in Tokyo to hold training courses over three days for new guide recruits in January.

They invited 60 people to attend the courses, aimed at training English-, Chinese- and Korean-speaking guide interpreters. Around 150 people applied.

About 30 people who took the training course for English-speaking guides took part in a simulation practice in Osaka Prefecture’s Kishiwada, alternating roles of playing tourists and guides.

They visited tourist spots in the area, including Kishiwada Castle, with those acting as guides explaining in English the local sights, such as traditional Japanese style wooden houses.

Shinya Nagata, a 34-year-old company employee who took part in the course, said the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was what made him interested in using his foreign language skills by working as a guide interpreter. He said he hopes to work as a guide in the 2025 Osaka Kansai Expo so he can extoll the virtues of Osaka Prefecture to visitors.

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

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

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

Yuki Hiratsuka, secretary-general of the association, said it would like to foster an environment where different kinds of guides can use their various skills to help meet travelers’ needs.

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