Illegal tourist guides roam the streets of the metropolis without hiding, from Old Montreal to Mile End via the Plateau. But the City does nothing against these workers who do not respect municipal regulations and who operate without permits or training.
“It’s unfair competition,” laments Frédérik Nissen, owner of Local Food Tours, a company that offers food tours in Montreal and Quebec.
The company’s 20 guides (there were 60 before the pandemic) completed the mandatory training of the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec (ITHQ) to become tourist guides in Montreal. They all hold a permit from the City.
Every day, however, they come across clandestine guides in the streets of Montreal. These illegal hosts advertise their services on sites like Airbnb Experience, TripAdvisor’s Viator or Secret Food Tours. They offer local cuisine in Mile End, electric scooter rides in Griffintown, or the city’s best-kept secrets like bagels (a secret, really?).
“Secret Food Tours tours are food-centric, but groups still roam super-important thoroughfares like St. Viateur and Fairmount that deserve to be showcased,” says the entrepreneur.
“There is a whole heritage to promote, all the gray stone of Mile End, the artists of the neighborhood, the gentrification… The neighborhood is going through a transition and visitors should be informed,” he said.
In Montreal, the tourist guide industry is governed by municipal by-law G-2. Mr. Nissen maintains that he has never seen an inspector or a peace officer enforce this by-law. “If Montreal wants to abolish its rules, let it be clear to everyone and we will realign our flutes,” he said. But we believe it should be maintained to provide the best Montreal experience. »
“Anyone can appear on social networks or on the platforms that are multiplying”, also deplores Bruno Lajeunesse, teacher in guiding technique at the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec (ITHQ).
When Place d’Armes is teeming with tourists in the summer, this 35-year-experienced guide can’t help but listen to what guides — with or without a license — are saying about Notre-Dame Basilica, Rue banks (rue Saint-Jacques) or the statue of Maisonneuve, founder of Montreal. “Sometimes we are 10 or 12 guides at the same time. I have big ears and I listen to what people are saying,” he explains.
Falsehoods made his hair stand on end. And in 26 years as a guide in Montreal, he too has never seen a law enforcement officer cracking down on guides who don’t display their license prominently around their neck.
The City of Montreal says it has not issued any tickets “recently under this by-law.” However, she referred us to the boroughs to find out if peace officers or inspectors had distributed fines in these places.
According to the regulations, offenders face a fine of $100 to $300 for a first offense and up to $1,000 for a repeat offense. In North America, only the cities of New York and Quebec also require tour guides to hold a permit.
In Montreal, the 240-hour training costs $2,500 while the permit price is $105.
Tourisme Montréal, whose mission is to attract tourists to the city, is concerned about the proliferation of uncertified guides. “Welcome and hospitality are the #1 factors in returning visitors to the destination. If a guide is less professional or offers a less pleasant experience, it risks playing on word-of-mouth,” explains Aurélie de Blois, spokesperson for Tourisme Montréal.
“There is a regulation in force and it is made to be respected,” she adds.
Michel Ménard, vice-president of the Professional Association of Tourist Guides of Montreal (APTG), praises the formation of the ITHQ which integrates the history of Montreal, but also urban planning, architecture, public art, politics, real estate, sports…
Even if an illegal guide is competent, says Mr. Ménard, the rules exist for everyone. They guarantee truthful information and a good experience for tourists. On the eve of the summer season, the APGT hopes to make the City aware of its own regulations.
Élyse Lévesque, tourist guide and teacher at the ITHQ, says that Montreal is not an easy destination to explain to tourists with themes such as independence, Aboriginal peoples, the health system and immigrant neighborhoods. “We are often told about Montreal as being a bilingual city. It would be much easier to answer yes, but the reality is more complex. If we did not give tourists an explanation, they would leave with this idea when the official language of Montreal is French,” explains Ms. Lévesque, who has been a guide in Montreal since 2016.
The teacher points out that the ITHQ training also teaches future guides how to get around town. For example, a group should never block traffic on a sidewalk, she cites as an example.
“Last summer, I took a group of four tourists on bikes down an alley in Mile End. Just ahead of us was a group of 12 on electric scooters. They entered the alley where young children were playing. Most of these customers had probably never been on a scooter in their life an hour earlier,” says Élyse Lévesque.
“This kind of event also creates tension with the residents,” she laments.
What is this building in the shape of a castle? And those pink trees? Why did the parliament in Montreal catch fire? Our uncertified guide, chosen from a site that offers guided tours in 59 cities around the world, had a hard time answering some rather simple questions about Montreal. He also sprinkled his speech with a few falsehoods, as noted by Élyse Lévesque, guide and teacher at the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, who participated in the visit with La Presse.
“From history lessons to the best local dishes; introduction to multicultural Montreal. The description (in English) of this three-hour tour that allows you to see Old Montreal, the Jean-Talon market, the “hip” Mile End and to taste a craft beer immediately appealed to us. We chose Naomi, a French guide who arrived in Montreal two years ago. Cost of visit: $282.30, excluding tip.
However, two days before the visit, the company told us that Gabriel would rather be our guide. The man of Brazilian origin, in Quebec for six years, wrote to us that it would be impossible to visit everything in three hours. Disappointed, we chose to explore Old Montreal and rush into the metro to the Jean-Talon market.
Gabriel arrived at the meeting point, the entrance to Complexe Desjardins, eight minutes after the agreed time. “In the business, they say a guide 15 minutes early is a guide late!” says Élyse Lévesque. “Tourists in a foreign city already have stress to deal with. If they don’t see their guide, they’ll start thinking they’re in the wrong place,” she adds.
From the Complexe Desjardins, Gabriel takes us through the underground city to lead us to Chinatown. The corridor leads to a white and red building on rue De La Gauchetière. Élyse Lévesque holds out a pole to the guide: “What is this building? Gabriel doesn’t know.
These are the premises of Wing, the oldest company in Chinatown. It was founded in 1893 and specializes in making noodles and fortune cookies, explains Élyse Lévesque after the tour. “They’re the first to make bilingual fortune cookies!” They have been in this building since the 1960s. Before, it was the former British and Canadian School. »
Gabriel was unable to identify a building in the shape of a castle (the old Viger station) and one with appearances of the Empire State Building (the Aldred building). He said he didn’t know why there were pink trees in the Palais des Congrès and a metal chair in the city underground. They are in fact works signed by the artists Claude Cormier and Michel Goulet.
To the dismay of Élyse Lévesque, our guide did not mention the Maisonneuve monument in the center of the Place d’Armes or that of Jean Drapeau in front of the town hall. “Jean Drapeau was mayor for 29 years. He is at the origin of Expo 67, the metro, the Olympic Games, the Place des Arts. I usually talk about this sculpture, ”laments the teacher and guide.
As we cross the eight metro stations that separate Old Montreal from Jean-Talon Street, Gabriel does not talk about the construction of the underground transportation system and the network. Instead, he talks about ChatGPT and writing his doctoral thesis.
At the World Trade Center, our guide introduces us to the statue of Venus. It is actually the goddess Amphitrite. At the Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours chapel, he talks about a statue that survived the fire of 1754. The story is real, but he points to a large golden statue of the Virgin and Child outside of the chapel while the miraculous is much smaller and is inside.
He claims that the Russian pavilion at Expo 67 was in Old Montreal and that Notre-Dame Basilica was built by the English. “There would have been so much to say about the basilica. I was freaking out! He said it was built by the English, but in reality the architect is James O’Donnell and he is Irish. And we agree, there is no more French Catholic church than the Notre-Dame Basilica! », laments Élyse Lévesque, at the end of the visit.
“I don’t understand why he chooses to put himself in this position where he has to talk about history when he doesn’t know the history. He made things up,” says Élyse Lévesque, amazed.
Gabriel, a nice and polite young man, knew the outlines of several neighborhoods, stories or streets of Montreal. But as soon as we asked him a question, he was unable to delve into a subject.
“But what is the stereotype that sticks to the skin of the guides? asks Élyse Lévesque. This is a trend everywhere in tourism. People want to live like the locals, to experience the city like them. But it’s like we guides aren’t local! »
“A lot of people think guides have a script. But in reality, the trained guide can adapt to the subjects that interest his clientele, while the untrained one cannot get out of his script,” says Élyse Lévesque, at the end of the three hours.