The influx of foreign tourists to Mandalay has prompted more people to consider a career as a tour guide, but many say they find themselves stymied by the government’s rules on licensing.
The course fee and expenses associated with the 2.5 month program in Yangon that must be completed to earn a licence are prohibitive barriers for many new guides.
The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism says the initial training course is K40,000-50,000, while biennial, three-day refresher courses are free. Voluntary specialist classes, such as history or folk tales, cost about K20,000 each.
Tour guides have to renew their licence every two years and this costs at least K30,000. At the same time, guides also have to pay a biennial tax to the Ministry of Finance and Revenue. The tax is negotiated and varies according to where guides work and whether they are employed by a travel company or are freelance.
Instead, many aspiring guides work unofficially and wait outside attractions in the city and surrounding tourist sites like Mingun for foreign customers.
All guides who work for registered travel companies are required to have a licence.
“To get the licence is a lot of money; I am only a trishaw driver,” said Ko Chit Ko, a part-time guide who waits at the southern entrance of Mandalay Hill for clients.
U Zaw Win, a spokesperson for the Mandalay branch of the Myanmar Tourist Guide Association (MTGA), agreed amateur tour guides are common in Mandalay but said they lack the professionalism and knowledge of licensed guides.
“They do not tell the truth, they don’t know to explain the history,” he said.
However, U Zaw Win agreed the costs associated with getting a licence are a significant burden, even if the training in Yangon is free.
He said the MTGA has lobbied the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism to open a training and licensing centre in Mandalay but with no success.
“In 1998 when I attended [the training] ... it was a big challenge for me,” said U Zaw Win. “When I came I had no friends in Yangon. I lived in a monastery and only ate one meal a day. It was difficult.”
U Zaw Win said he believes the training is necessary to teach young guides about culture, history, and in general how to deal with the tourists.
U Yan Naing, a deputy director general at the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, said the ministry only had the funding to operate one centre but did not rule out the possibility of opening training schools outside Yangon in future.
For its part, the MTGA has attempted to fill the gap by offering a free, two-month informal training course for aspiring tour guides. The current class has 85 students, who are taught by licensed tour guides.
U Zaw Win said graduates finish the class having all the skills and knowledge they would acquire at the training in Yangon but still have no licence.
One such graduate is Ko Kyaw Min, a young freelance guide who speaks perfect English with a distinct Australian accent. He plans to go to Yangon to get his official licence sometime next year.
“I don’t mind the exams, the problem is I’m not from Yangon,” he said, adding that he was unsure where he would live or how he would cover his costs.
“Myanmar tourism is growing really fast,” he said. “It’s necessary to have different centres in Mandalay, Bagan and Inle [Lake] so that all the people can benefit.”
What is not in doubt is the sharp rise in visitors to Mandalay, famed for its palace walls and thriving handicrafts industry.
U Aung Aung Zaw, general manager of the Mandalay branch of Tour Mandalay, estimates that about 100,000 tourists have already visited Mandalay this year, with many more to come in November and December.
“Our company has British, American, and Australian clients like never before,” he said.
Additional reporting by Yu Yu Maw