Some Belfast tour guides ‘are just making things up’

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A Northern Ireland tour guide who has been conducting tours for visitors for more than three decades has called for the industry here to be better regulated.

Billy Dickson BEM made his comments in response to a News Letter story about an American tourist who was shocked by the “anti-Protestant bigotry” and “revisionist political bias” he says he and his parents experienced during a black taxi tour around Belfast last Friday.

Billy Dickson said the challenge for all tour guides is to be balanced and factual

Billy Dickson said the challenge for all tour guides is to be balanced and factual

Drew Liquerman, a 21-year-old masters degree student from Virginia, said a taxi driver agreed to claims their taxi driver gave them “historically inaccurate” information throughout the 90-minute tour.

Among the things Mr Liquerman (a member of the US Republican Party) said he was told was that Protestants hate non-white people, and that “their gene pool is so small they are all like the people from Deliverance” – a reference to a 1972 film featuring yokels who are virtually feral.

Reacting to the story, Mr Dickson said it wasn’t the first time he’d heard about inaccurate information and sectarian bias being used on a tour here.

The former Belfast city councillor qualified as a Blue Badge Guide thorough the Institute of Tourist Guiding and is a member of Tour Guides NI – an industry body that prides itself on the quality, training and professional development of its guides.

Having been in the business for well over 30 years, the 71-year-old still regularly conducts walking tours and works as a guide on coach tours around Northern Ireland.

He said tourists can be under significant misapprehensions about the Province.

For instance, he recalled once being asked by a visitor whether it was true that the Protestants poisoned the Catholics’ water supply.

“You have to be factual. You can’t plug for one side or the other. You have to pass on factual, unbiased information to tourists; that’s very important,” he said.

“What has happened in recent years is there’s been a flood of guides. Some of them aren’t officially qualified Blue Badge Guides but they’re pretty good, but a lot of them aren’t so good.

“Some of them are telling people things that are just made up; that’s the only way to put it. They just don’t care as they are getting money anyway, so they don’t care what they tell the tourists. They’re not qualified in any way.

“The things we hear that some of the guides have told tourists are unbelievable.”

For example, Mr Dickson said he’d heard about one guide telling tourists that there are plans to cover Belfast with a large glass dome.

Calling for better regulation of the industry here, Mr Dickson continued: “We need a better system whereby tourist guides are fully trained and tested like Blue Badge Guides.

“At the minute any Tom, Dick or Harry can do tours and you have visitors coming from all over the world and many of them aren’t getting professional tours.”

Mr Dickson, who served as deputy lord mayor of Belfast in 1986, stressed that many of the local tour companies do their best to give tourists accurate and unbiased information, but said more needs to be done to ensure that all guides provide a professional service.

“I go into Milltown Cemetery and I go to the republican plot and I tell them about Bobby Sands and the rest of it.

“Then I go over to the Cross of Sacrifice (a memorial erected after the First World War) and tell them about the nationalists who fought under John Redmond, because you have to give people the whole aspect of history.

“But when I’m in there I notice that so many tours come in and go to the republican plot and straight out again and that’s not right. You need to give people a balanced picture.

“You have to be fair and factual. Of course there is a wee biased streak in us all as we’re all products of our own environment and our own upbringing, but the challenge is to be balanced.”