Anne Hailes: Blue Badge brigade the real cream of the tourist guide crop
I WAS delighted to be invited to the Blue Badge graduation recently, the first in 12 years. Held in the Belfast Harbour Commissioner's Office, it was a very happy affair, with 32 students receiving their certificates and the approval of the Northern Ireland Tourist Guide Association (NITGA) as they embarked on their important work, playing host to thousands of visitors who come here every year.
Not too many local people know about this as usually it's only visitors who take bus tours round the north, but I assure you these successful students are the cream of the crop who will have their work cut out as this summer as we are expecting 90 cruise ships, with 120 due into Belfast next year.
We also have lots of visiting school trips from all over Europe, the United States and Canada as well plenty of people enjoying a ‘staycation' in the north.
Some guides do ‘hop on' tours for coaches visiting Belfast and there are many private bookings as well.
One lady who has had her badge for some years told me that one of her most interesting trips recently was with a local group from the Women's Institute who wanted to up the Coast Road. The skill she said, is talking to fit the time, especially in Belfast.
“If traffic is slow then there's plenty of time to go into detail but if it's not you have to talk fast!”
Visitors who bother to take a tour have a thirst for knowledge and that's where the guides come into their own. If you've taken coach tours abroad you'll know just how essential it is to have an entertaining host full of anecdotes and information. I heard that one visitor asked their guide if it was possible to to skate on Strangford Lough in winter; another asked where they could see a leprechaun.
To become a professional tourist guide isn't easy and badges are only granted to those who have studied long and hard, almost a year's intensive theory and practical lessons. They are rigorously tested, taken to the museum or St Anne's Cathedral where they'll conduct the examiners around as if they were visitors.
Their attitude is gauged throughout a series of tasks, their eloquence, their passion for storytelling and obviously their knowledge is of prime importance – did you know that Conn O'Neil bridge, the oldest bridge in Belfast, is mentioned in the The Hollow, sung by Van Morrison, or that Karl Marx's daughter visited shirt factories in Derry, that the famous May Pole in Holywood, Co Down, is said to have come about when a Dutch ship ran aground on the shore nearby in 1700?
History has it that the crew erected the broken mast to say thank you to the townsfolk for the assistance and kindness offered to them when they were in trouble.
Apparently Hillsborough is the up-and-coming place. It's not unusual for a bus to ground round the City Hall twice to give passengers the chance to take photographs, and of course, the Titanic Experience is top of the list. In the 2016 World Travel Awards, Titanic Belfast was named as the best tourist attraction in the world and I'm not surprised. Of course Game of Thrones is a talking point as are history and current affairs – and that covers a multitude.
All these men and women have one thing in common: they want to show off Belfast and Northern Ireland and they are prepared to work towards showing us off in the best and most interesting light. There are around 400 freelance guides in Ireland, 100 here in Northern Ireland. And with a 97 per cent pass rate and half of their number being multilingual, they are impressing the judges.
“What is obvious to you may not be obvious to others so patience is important, there's no such thing as a stupid question,” sums up the attitude.
The Institute of Tourist Guiding's Blue Badge is the ultimate award for professional tour guides. The training course for prospective guides runs for around seven months and costs in the region of £3,500 but guiding at this level is a paid profession.
NITGA's recommended minimum rates for 2016 were £90 for half day and £160 full day. Some guides charge more and rates for extended tours differ and are based on daily rate. All NITGA guides are insured and Blue Badge Guides operate under the BB code of conduct.
Guides are employed by a variety of incoming tour operators with Excursions Ireland being the biggest employer of guides for incoming cruise ships.
A new webpage is being set up at www.nitga.co.uk and will be operational soon but in the meantime you can leave a message and someone will get back to you.
I THOUGHT this was a very good thinking by someone in America – isn't Facebook a wonderful thing?
"If you are going away on holiday, there's a great idea called the one cup tip. Put a cup of water into your freezer. When the water is solid ice, place a coin on top and leave the cup and the coin in the freezer. That way, when you come home you can tell if there's been a power cut, if the coin is at the bottom of the cup it means your foodstuff has quite likely thawed out and refrozen, therefore dangerous to eat."
Not a bad idea to use this detecting device in your freezer all the time. It would be a warning not only for ‘outages' as they are called but also if your freezer develops an intermittent fault.