License to Tour


Washington, DC gets a lot of tourists every year. We also have business travelers and summer interns and the like. We also have a high unemployment rate, especially in the city’s working class neighborhoods. One thing a long-time resident who finds himself jobless might try to do is guide visitors around the city in exchange for money. In other words, be a tour guide.

Except that turns out to be illegal.

To be a tour guide in DC, in addition to getting a basic business license and paying taxes, you need to apply for a special tour guide license (PDF) a process that involves $200 worth application fees, license fees, and an exam fees. You need to fill out a long application. You also need to score at least 70% on the DC District of Columbia Sightseeing Tour Guide Professional Licensing Examination (PDF) which involves questions from the following areas:

— Architectural
— Dates
— Government
— Historical Events
— Landmark Buildings
— Locations
— Monuments, Memorials
— Museums and Art Galleries
— Parks, Gardens, and Zoo Aquariums
— Presidents
— Sculptures and Statues
— Universities
— Pictures
— Regulations

You mean if I want to try to give a walking tour of the U Street era, talk about its heritage as the “Black Broadway,” it’s decline in the 70s and 80s, and it’s rebirth over the past 20 years I need to pass a test about presidents? About Aquariums? If I want to do an embassy tour I need to be quizzed on universities? Not surprisingly, a cottage industry has sprung up of businesses promising to help people pass the tour guide test.

And the questions get a bit weird. Rebecca Sheir points out in an NPR story that one sample question asked whether the Smithsonian National Zoological Park (aka “the National Zoo”) is one of the 19 Smithsonian Museums. The correct answer is no, “technically, its a research center.” And good for it!

I found out about all this because I had lunch earlier this week with a couple of guys from the Institute of Justice, a libertarian outfit based in the suburbs that shares my interest in these kind of petty local regulations. Their m.o. is constitutional litigation and they’re launching a lawsuit today alleging that this scheme is unconstitutional: “Simply put, the government is not allowed to require people to get a license in order to talk.”

I’m not a lawyer and I’m not really a fan of arguments about the constitution, but this sure seems like bad policy to me. It’s a barrier to entry that’s nice for existing tour guides and for companies in the “help tour guides pass our exam” industry, but that’s ultimately bad for visitors to the city and bad for DC residents who might want to make some money giving tours. You don’t need a license to be a tour guide in Boston and as best I can tell everything’s fine. I’ve taken tours in Boston, and I’ve heard of any time of people visiting the city without incident. Customers there are protected by the general laws against fraud and other forms of criminal misconduct as well as whatever discipline the marketplace and people’s concern for their reputation provides.