Tour Buddy: Friend or foe to Malaysia’s tourism industry?

Being a tour guide is much more than being a local and therefore familiar with a destination. Source: Shutterstock.

WHETHER YOU’RE ALONE OR NOT, it’s still illegal. The Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) has informed its members of over 3,200 tour and travel companies nationwide, to not engage the service of Tour Buddy as it is “against the law”.

MATTA President Tan Kok Liang said, “Tour buddies are illegal tourist guides and would be in hot soup if caught by officers from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, when enforcing Section 21.1 of the Tourism Industry Act, which states: No person shall act or hold himself out as a tourist guide, unless he is licensed under this part.”

Launched on Sept 28, 2017, Tour Buddy is the brainchild of the Malaysian Inbound Tourism Association (MITA) and the Malaysian Digital Economy Corp (MDEC). It aims to train and develop a group of verified hosts who will offer personalized travel experiences to international and local tourists.

Its slogan reads, “You’ll never be alone”.

Source: Tour Buddy

How does it work?

Tour Buddy is a localized private tour service that allows ordinary citizens, including non-Malaysians, to promote and introduce new tourist attractions in Malaysia. Aspiring “tour buddies” simply need to register their interest on the website, get interviewed via a phone call or Skype, and then attend a month-long training session to get accredited.

Accredited, but not officially licensed by the local tourism board, Tourism Malaysia.

After which, the “tour buddies” will be contacted and will meet the tourists at the designated location. They will use the mobile app to conduct their tours and payment will be made according to the time rate or package offered.

Source: Google Play Store.

Currently, the project will involve nine tourism sites in Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ipoh, Johor Bahru, Melaka, Langkawi, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching and Taman Negara. There are also plans to implement it in East Malaysia.

MITA President Uzaidi Udanis promised that “tour buddies” can potentially earn up to RM3,000 a month. Uzaidi said the partnership projected the participation of 2,000 civilians or companies that would be “tour buddies” by the end of 2018.

Who is guaranteeing the safety of the tourists?

Licensed tour guides are bound by the Tourism Industry Act, and tour guides have to be trained for up to six months before they are licensed by Tourism Malaysia. This include lectures, practical work, assignments, and examinations. Tourism Malaysia also requires tour guides to go for “continuing tourism-related education” to ensure they are equipped with accurate information of tourism products and tourism-related education.

However, any such education programs must be first approved by Tourism Malaysia before they can be implemented, and a certificate of attendance is issued to participants.

According to the Tourism Industry Act Section 26.1(a), it is compulsory for licensed tour guides to wear their authorization card conspicuously whenever he or she is on duty, conducting tours or when attending courses.

Their licences are valid for a period not exceeding three years from the date the licence was granted, but renewable upon review. And there is a host of things that could cause suspension or revocation of their license e.g. failing to attend further training, not wearing the authorization card, not performing the functions of a tour guide for a continuous period of six months.

Source: Shutterstock

With that in mind, if something were to go wrong with the trip or if a tourist’s safety is compromised, will the tour buddy by punishable by law? Who is monitoring these “buddies”?  And with no proper licensing, can they continue to be a part of the tour buddy program after committing an offence?

What if tourists are not getting their money’s worth?

The Star quoted MITA as saying that Tour Buddy is a community-based tourism program that encourages locals, especially in rural areas, to support the industry. As a tour buddy, locals will be able to show tourists local skills, food and art.

“MITA will not allow any tour buddy to provide services that are against the law,” Udanis said.

Being a tour guide is much more than being a local and therefore familiar with a destination. It also requires excellent communication and people skills, a knack for being organized and reliable, and good physical fitness, to say the least.

With such minimal training (as compared to licensed tour guides), will “tour buddies” be able to cope with tourists’ questions and requests? Will tourists be educated properly on the do’s and don’ts at said destination? Tour guides have an obligation to fulfill because their license is at stake but what about “tour buddies”? With no standardization across the board, will tourists be getting their money’s worth?

** Travel Wire Asia has reached out to Tour Buddy for comment and is currently awaiting response