Factors Affecting the Service Quality of the Tour Guiding
Profession in Macau *
Athena H. N. Mak, University of Surrey, UK
Kevin K. F. Wong, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong
Richard C. Y. Chang, Providence University, Taiwan
* This is a draft version of the paper. For the published version, please consult the
journal website: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jtr.746/abstract
This study examines the factors affecting the service quality of the tour guiding
profession in Macau. In-depth interviews were conducted with representatives from the
Macau Tourist Guide Association, the Macau Government Tourist Office, and selected
practising tour guides to explore the issues from multiple insiders’ perspectives. The
factors identified were classified into six categories: unhealthy business practices,
market domination, immaturity of tourist market, changing tourist behaviour, intense
competition between inbound tour operators, and human resource issues. The findings
suggest that a number of these problems actually originated from the unhealthy
business practices of the tourist-generating country, namely Mainland China in this
study. Considering the growing importance of the Chinese outbound tourism market,
the study findings will be of significant value to Macau and to other destinations
targeting the Chinese market.
Keywords:tour guide, tour guiding profession, service quality, Macau inbound,
Mainland China outbound.
The tourism literature has widely recognized that the service quality of the tour
guide is a critical factor in achieving tourist satisfaction (Lopez, 1980; Geva &
Goldman, 1991; Mossberg, 1995; Ap & Wong, 2001; Wong, 2001; Wang, Hsieh &
Huan, 2000; Zhang & Chow, 2004; Black & Weiler, 2005), influencing travel
operator’s reputation and word-of-mouth publicity (Heung, 2008), and affecting the
image and revisit intention of a destination (Whipple & Tach, 1988; Chang, 2006; Sahin
& Balta, 2007). On the other hand, destination governments and tourism industries are
increasingly aware of the need to improve the service quality of the tour guiding
profession; for instance by investing in training programs (Weiler & Ham, 2002; Dioko
& Unakul, 2005) as well as quality assurance and regulatory mechanisms (Ap & Wong
2001; Black & Weiler, 2005). This is a particularly pressing issue in many Asian
destinations in the face of fierce intra-regional competition.
Macau is one of the destinations in Asia which faces strong competition from
established destinations in the neighborhood such as Hong Kong, Guangzhou and
Singapore (Leong, 2007). Macau has been experiencing a rapid expansion of the
inbound tourism market over the past decade. According to the Macau Government
Tourists Office (MGTO) (MGTO, 2008a), visitor arrivals in 2007 exceeded 27 million,
representing a growth of 22.7 per cent from 2006. The advent of the liberalization of the
gaming industry in 2002 (Yong and Fu, 2006) and the resultant significant scale
expansion of the casino business, as well as the relaxation of travel arrangements made
by the Mainland Chinese government have significantly contributed to the exponential
growth of Macau’s tourism industry in recent years.
In spite of the thriving success in the inbound market, the large influx of visitors
has posed great challenges to the MGTO and the travel industry on retaining and
recruiting enough well-qualified and well-trained tour guides in the industry, especially
when there is an acute labor shortage in Macau (Kale & De, 2006). More importantly,
the monitoring and controlling of the service quality of the tour guides has become
more difficult. There are a number of reported incidents of rows and conflicts between
tourists and the tour guides (The China Post, 2007; Macau Daily Times, 2008) about
excessive shopping trips and the changing of the original itinerary without the
agreement of the tourists. These incidents resulted in a growing crisis of confidence in
the tour guiding profession in Macau. Accordingly, there is a pressing need for policy
makers and stakeholders to understand the current state of the tour guiding profession
and its impact on the travel industry in Macau. It is in such a context that this study
attempts to examine the factors and the underlying causes that affect the service quality
of the tour guides in Macau. This study is part of a wider research project that seeks to
document and explore the issues and problems affecting the tour guiding professions in
the Southeast Asia region.
Roles of tour guides
According to the European Federation of Tourist Guides Associations (EFTGA), a
tour guide is defined as a person who “guides groups or individual visitors from abroad
or from the home country around the monuments, sites and museums of a city or region;
to interpret in an inspiring and entertaining manner, in the language of the visitor’s
choice, the cultural and natural heritage and environment” (EFTGA, 1998). In Macau,
MGTO defined a tour guide as “the person who receives and escorts tourists, provides
commentaries as a tourist service, and receives remuneration for his or her service”
(MGTO, 2008b). Although the two definitions differ, both emphasize the “guide/lead”
and “interpret/inform” roles of the tour guide, which are respectively represented under
the “leadership sphere” and “mediatory sphere” in Cohen’s (1985) model on the
dynamics of the tour guide’s role (see Table 1).
[Insert Table 1]
Cohen’s (1985) model delineates the four major components of the role of modern
tour guides, namely, “Original Guide” (pathfinder), “Professional Guide” (mentor),
“Animator,” and “Tour-leader”. Whilst the model aptly captures the roles tour guides
play based on the needs of the tourists, there are other “mundane” roles that they
perform. For instance, as employees of the tour operators, tour guides are the
“spokespersons” representing the image and reputation of the company and the
“salespersons” selling the next tour (Grönroos, 1978; Fine & Speer 1985; Chang, 2006).
From the host destination’s perspective, they serve as the “interpreters” translating the
cultures and values of the host destination (Holloway 1981; Katz 1985; Ryan & Dewar
1995) and as the “mediators” mediating between the host destination environment and
its visitors (Weiler & Davis, 1993; Ballantyne & Hughes, 2001). In a wider scope, they
also function as the “ambassadors” of the host communities who are entrusted with the
public relations missions “to encapsulate the essence of place” (Pond, 1993:vii) and
serve as the window to a particular destination (Holloway, 1981; Pond, 1993). The
studies by Black and Weiler (2005) and Zhang and Chow (2004) provide a
comprehensive summary on the various roles tour guides play.
Among the many diverse roles tour guides play, there has been a strong emphasis
on their “mediator” role which includes mediation between the tourists and the tour
operator, hotels and other tourism suppliers (Dahles, 2002), as well as between the
tourists and the host community and environment (Weiler & Davis, 1993; Ballantyne
& Hughes, 2001). The harmonious balancing of the benefits of these various
stakeholders is most ideal; however, as cited by Dahles (2002), the process of
mediation in the actual tourism practice can be problematic, and the roles of tour
guides are not likely to be harmonious at all times. In fact, the different roles are often
in conflict with one another (Holloway, 1981). Moreover, tour guides have an
“entrepreneurship” role to fulfil, as they have a need to make their encounters with
tourists profitable for themselves (Steege, Stam & Bras, 1999; Dahles, 2002). Based on
these arguments, there is a tendency of an over-idealization on tour guides’ “mediator”
role with their various stakeholders including tourists, tour operators, host communities,
host environment, and government authorities (Steege et al, 1999; Dahles, 2002), and
an under-awareness on tour guides’ “entrepreneur” role to satisfy their own economic
Service quality in tour guiding
Service quality is defined as the difference between customer expectations and
perceptions of service (Parasuraman, Berry & Zeithaml, 1988). Parasuraman et al.
(1985, 1988) posit that a customer’s assessment of overall service quality depends on
the “gap” between expectations and perceptions of the actual performance. According
to this paradigm, customers decide whether they are satisfied, and a smaller gap
between expectations and perceptions leads to the service being perceived as a higher
quality, thus resulting in customer satisfaction.
In the context of tour guiding, the perceived service quality of a tour guide can be
evaluated through three major constructs: (1) core service delivery, (2) customer
orientation, and (3) communication effectiveness (Heung, 2008). Heung (2008)
explicates that core service refers to the essence of a tour guide’s service (e.g. follows
the agreed itinerary, provides commentaries, and assures customer satisfaction during
the tour) which the guide must deliver with consistency. Customer orientation, on the
other hand, denotes the extent the guide puts tourists’ needs and interests ahead of
his/her own in providing superior value to tourists (e.g. not to be focused on short-term
self-interest and not to adopt a ‘hard’ selling approach to tourists). Communication
involves the exchange of information (e.g. communicates the itinerary/arrangement to
tourists and handles tourists’ inquiries) and is regarded as a crucial function of the tour
guide. Likewise, Ap and Wong (2001) suggest that the tour guide’s attitude with
respect to service (particularly in terms of the extent of money-oriented or customer
service-oriented), product knowledge, and communication skills are significant aspects
in assessing the perceived service professionalism of the guide.
Indeed, the service quality aspect of the tour guiding profession is starting to
receive more research attention. For instance, Zhang and Chow (2004) identified
twenty tour guide service quality attributes pertinent to mainland Chinese tourists. The
six most important attributes perceived by Chinese tourists were: (1) punctual, (2) able
to solve problems, (3) knowledge of destination, (4) honest and trustworthy, (5) inform
safety regulations, and (6) deliver service promised in itinerary. Other studies have
collectively contributed to a growing insight and understanding of the service quality
aspect of tour guides (Mossberg, 1995; Wang, Hsieh, & Huan, 2000; Wong, 2001;
Heung, 2008). Nonetheless, most of these studies have taken the perspective of tourists
and have not taken account of the guiding profession’s and the industry practitioners’
While Ap and Wong (2001) raised and discussed some of the issues and
challenges facing the tour guiding profession in Hong Kong from the tour guide and
industry practitioners’ perspective and provided insights into understanding the nature
of and issues faced by the tour guiding profession in Hong Kong, this study extends
and delves more deeply into those challenges and seeks to identify and evaluate
specific (and, new) tour guiding issues which are unique to Macau, a strongly
competitive Asian tourist destination which still receives a large number of tourists. By
exploring and investigating the viewpoints of various stakeholders, this research aims
to present an updated and in-depth analysis of the current state of the tour guiding
profession and its impact on the travel industry in Macau.
The development of the tour guiding profession in Macau
MGTO is a government statutory body with the task of pursuing the overall goals
defined by the tourism sector in Macau. It has five subdivisions, namely, Licensing and
Inspections Department, Promotion and Marketing Department, Product Development
and SpecialProjectsDepartment, ResearchandPlanning Department,and
Administrative and Finance Division (MGTO, 2008c). The Licensing and Inspections
Department of the MGTO is responsible for the issuing of Tour Guide Cards and
monitoring of any illegal practices in the guiding profession. There is a strict
qualification requirements stipulated by MGTO, particularly, educational qualifications.
For example, prospective Tour Guide Card applicants must pass the qualifying courses
offered by the Institute for Tourism Studies (IFT) or obtain a diploma or bachelor’s
degree in the field of tourism offered by the IFT or other local or overseas higher
education institutions approved by the IFT. As of the end of 2007, there were 1,317
licensed tour guides in Macau, representing a 6.8 per cent growth from 2006 (MGTO,
The Macau Tourist Guide Association (MATGA) was established in July 2002.
The MATGA is devoted to advancing the professional development of the tour guides
in Macau. It also aims to promote unity and encourage communication between its
members as well as the coalition and cooperation of the other guide associations in
other parts of the world (MATGA, 2008). With the rapid growth of the tourism
industry in Macau, the role of the MATGA as the official tour guiding association
offering support to upgrade its members’ service professionalism has been gaining
momentum through its close cooperation with the IFT in providing new or refresher
courses for member guides and by working closely with the MGTO to identify
solutions for the problems faced by the guiding profession.
This study adopted a qualitative case study research approach that is rooted in the
philosophy of phenomenology, which offers the opportunity of discovering “the reality
working behind the reality” (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill, 2000). The two-phase data
collection process included a first phase of secondary data collection from various
sources including travel and tourism literature, government reports, tour guide
association websites, and newspaper databases to gain an insight into the current
situation regarding the Macau tourism industry and the tour guiding profession. The
second phase involved semi-structured in-depth interviews with authoritative sources
from both the Macau Tour Guide Association and the Macau Government Tourist
Office, as well as three practising tour guides in Macau to explore the issues and
problems from multiple insiders’ perspectives. According to Patton (2002, p.244),
“there are no rules for sample size in qualitative inquiry”. The sample size of
qualitative inquiry is determined not by the number of interviewees but by data
saturation, when no new information is discovered on the study phenomenon.
Considering that the current study was mainly a pilot investigation with no intention to
make generalization, a small sample size is adopted. However, it is germane to point
out that the small sample size limits the generalizability of the findings.
Purposive sampling was used as the sampling procedure in selecting the
interviewees whose insights would be relevant to the issues being studied (Lincoln &
Guba, 1985). With purposive sampling, the selection of the sample can include the
most informed respondents in terms of knowledge of the studied topics and those most
likely to affect change within the policy realm. Unlike most of the past studies that
investigated the service quality aspects of tour guides from the perspectives of tourists,
this study is purposely focused on the insiders’ perspectives. It is believed that the
underlying causes of the problems faced by the guiding profession would be more
meaningfully investigated using a multiple insiders’ perspectives approach involving
the monitoring authority/government, tour guide association, and practicing tour
guides. Table 2 summarizes the profile of the interviewees.
[Insert Table 2]
Given the fact that some of the tour guiding issues and problems are sensitive,
interviewees may be reluctant to discuss them in a group setting. As such, individual
in-depth interview was considered a more appropriate method to obtain primary data in
this study. All interviewees were assured of confidentiality and anonymity. The
interviews were held in the beginning of June 2007 and completed by the end of July
2007. Each of the interviews lasted on average an hour and a half and all interviews
were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim into Chinese. The Chinese transcripts
were then translated into English. The English transcripts were checked and compared
with the Chinese transcripts and the audio recordings in order to ensure accuracy. A
total of 53 pages of transcribed data were obtained.
Content analysis was employed as the means for contextualizing the connections
between categories and themes in this study. According to Maxwell (1996), content
analysis is a research technique for making replicable and valid inferences from texts
to the contexts of their use. It provides new insights, increases a researcher’s
understanding of particular phenomena, or informs practical actions. This research
technique enables the researcher to include large amounts of textual information and
systematically identify its properties by detecting the more important structures of its
communication content. Tree structures were constructed to identify the themes and
evolving concepts with the aid of the NVivo computer program.
Triangulation of sources was used as a means to add to the credibility by
strengthening confidence in conclusions being drawn (Patton, 2002). For example,
issues and problems recounted by the tour guides were validated by the discourse from
the informants from the monitoring authority, or representatives from the tour guide
associations (Figure 1).
[Insert Figure 1]
In addition, assistance was sought from two professional colleagues in the
university to serve as peer debriefers in order to identify any hidden aspects in the
transcripts. Member checking was done during the interview process in which the
researchers asked relevant probing questions so as to assess whether interviewees’
meanings were interpreted accurately. For instance, if an interviewee acknowledged
that conflict between tourists and tour guides was caused by the unwelcome coercing
into shopping by tour guides, the researchers would accordingly probe into the
“unwelcome coercing into shopping” variable by asking: “Could you tell me more the
possible consequences of unwelcome coercing into shopping?” This iterative process
permitted the researchers to ensure the credibility of interpretation that emerged from
the interviews. These strategies collectively contributed to the trustworthiness of data,
thus enhancing the rigor of this study (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).
FINDINGS AND DISCUSSIONS
The findings are delineated under two themes: tourist-generating country and
host destination, and four categories: travel agent, tourists, tour operators, and tour
guides. Specific factors affecting the service quality of the tour guiding profession in
Macau are demarcated under the following six sub-categories: unhealthy business
practices, domination of market, immaturity of tourist market, changing tourist
behavior, intense competition between inbound tour operators, and human resource
issues. Figure 2 illustrates the structure of the categorization.
[Insert Figure 2]
Tourist-generating country – travel agents
1. Unhealthy business practices
The findings reveal that many of the outbound travel agents in Mainland China
have adopted unhealthy business practices that have severely affected the service
quality of the guiding profession in Macau. A number of researchers have previously
raised the issue of unhealthy business practices of travel agents in Mainland China (Ap
& Wong, 2001; Wong, 2001; Zhang & Chow, 2004; King, Dwyer & Prideaux, 2006;
Zhang, Heung & Yan, 2009). The findings of this study corroborate this assertion and
at the same time classify the major unhealthy business practices into the two categories:
below-cost tour fare and below-cost reception fee.
The below-cost tour fare practice is commonly known as the “zero/negative tour
fare” in the travel industry. It is found to be a prevalent practice in the Mainland
Chinese tourism market. This practice pertains to the system in which outbound travel
agents in Mainland China use a low tour fare that is under their actual cost to attract
tourists to join group tours. On the other hand, the below-cost reception fee practice,
also known as the “zero/negative reception fee,” is also another current unhealthy
business practice. It refers to the situation in which outbound travel agents in Mainland
China give a below-cost reception fee or even none at all for inbound tour operators
(ITOs) in Macau to receive their tour groups. The findings reveal that the below-cost
reception fee practice actually stems from the below-cost tour fare practice. Due to the
fact that the tour fare received from tourists are below-cost, outbound travel agents in
Mainland China must cut costs and logically decline to offer a proper reception fee to
the ITOs in Macau. In most cases, they allow the ITOs to “bid” for the right to receive
incoming group tours with the lowest possible reception fee. In some extreme cases,
the ITOs even have to pay out a fee just to “bid” for the right to receive the tour groups.
Consequently, the ITOs will incur expenses even before the tour groups arrive. To cut
costs, they tend to shift the financial pressure to the tour guides, for instance, by setting
a “shopping quota” per tourist for the tour guides to meet. The comment of a Macau
tour guide duly reflects the seriousness of this problem:
“As the reception fee is low or even negative, the tour operators have the
[financial] pressure, and tour guides have the [financial] pressure too [sic]. As
such, service quality of the tour guide is bound to decline, and this is a critical
issue faced by the guiding profession.”(MOTG-2)
Under the aforementioned circumstances, the tour guides will inevitably have to
bring tourists to visit various designated shops to coerce them to purchase or join
optional tours to cope with the financial pressure laid by the ITOs. Hence, instead of
focusing on delivering the “core services” (Heung, 2008), the guides are forced to shift
their focus to that of the “salesperson” role. This practice inevitably downgrades the
quality of the tour and is likely to be detrimental to both tourist satisfaction and the
perceived service quality of the tour guides.
2. Domination of the market
The findings further reveal that many travel agents in China do not directly deal
with the ITOs in Macau. Instead, they make their deals through wholesale travel agents
(WTAs) which are mostly located in Shenzhen or Guangzhou. This is because these
WTAs have a long-established wide network to receive tourists from all over China
and can usually obtain air or train tickets at a relatively lower price. For those
provinces whose residents are still required to travel to Macau in tour groups and not
as individual travellers, it would be much more efficient in terms of logistics for the
travel agents in these provinces to send the tour groups to Macau via the WTAs in
Shenzhen or Guangzhou. Besides, China is a country with a large geographic span
covering 9.6 million square kilometres, many of the travel agents scattered all over
China do not have the staff or resources to deal with the ITOs in Macau directly. These
travel agents would usually sell the tour groups to the WTAs in Shenzhen or
Guangzhou, as they would benefit from the economies of scales and efficiency in
outbound logistics. Likewise, it would be uneconomical for individual ITOs in Macau
to recruit tours directly from the many provinces in Mainland China by themselves.
Consequently, these practices have led to the situation in which the Mainland Chinese
outbound market to Macau is largely dominated by a few large WTAs in Shenzhen and
Guangzhou. The account made by a veteran Macau tour guide stresses the problem:
“Wholesale travel agents in Mainland China serve as intermediaries. They
receive tours from all over China and sell them to ITOs. In fact, there are many
intermediaries involved, and everyone has to earn a profit. However, tourists are
not aware of this. They paid for a high tour fare but eventually did not receive the
service quality they would have expected. Unfortunately, there are not much
monitoring measures adopted by the Mainland Chinese government.” (MOTG-3)
This market domination by the WTAs has given them the advantages of hefty
profit-taking and misrepresentation of tour quality, which are at the expense of the
ITOs and the tour guides in Macau. It is found that very often a large part of the tour
fare is taken by the WTAs as intermediary fee, and most often the tour itineraries and
components presented by the travel agents in Mainland China to the tourists are of a
higher quality.Another tour guide offered explication on the situation:
“…For instance, if it is stated in the itinerary that a seafood meal will be
arranged, when they reached us, it will become an ordinary meal, and the
difference had been taken by WTAs in Shenzhen. And if there should not be
shopping in the itinerary, when they reached us, shopping will be included.”
In many cases, the tour itineraries and components are often not what the tourists
would have expected. Since “deliver service promised in itinerary” is considered an
important “core service” by many tourists (Zhang and Chow, 2004; Heung, 2008), this
situation often leads to arguments and conflicts between the tour guides and the tourists,
causing much dissatisfaction on the service quality of the tour guide.
Tourist-generating country – tourists
3. Immaturity of tourist market
The immaturity of the tourist market in Mainland China is found to be a factor
that indirectly affects the service quality and healthy development of the guiding
profession in Macau. The China tourism market, especially the outbound market, is
relatively immature compared with the other well-developed markets. One of the main
problems that arises from this is that tourists tend to be overly-concerned about the
tour fare instead of the quality of the tour itself. The immaturity of the tourism market
in Mainland China is largely attributable to its relatively short history. It was only in
1984 that the Chinese government permitted Chinese citizens to visit their relatives in
Macau. Eventually in 1990, China began to relax its policies on outbound travel, and
Chinese citizens were allowed to join group tours to visit some Southeast Asian
countries for tourism purposes (Wen & Tisdell, 2001). The insight of an authoritative
source from MATGAreflects this phenomenon:
“As the outbound market in Mainland China is immature, tourism bureaus in
China must monitor their tour operators, in particular, their way of doing
business, so that unhealthy and unethical practices can be eliminated. Or else,
there is not much we can do on our side.” (MATGA-1)
As pointed out by King et al. (2006), China’s travellers will typically only accept
low prices which are not compatible with the input costs. The findings of this study
appear to corroborate this phenomenon and further reveal the fact that tourists are
overly concerned with tour fares instead of the quality of the tour components. Hence,
travel agents in Mainland China emphasize low prices to attract tourists, and as a result
the tour fare is forced to be below-cost. Coupled with the profit-taking and price
dictation practices by the WTAs, the reception fee being paid to the ITOs in Macau is
often minimal if not below-cost. Consequently, the ITOs are not able to afford highly
skilled guides and even guide fees, causing much grievance to the tour guiding
profession. Without appropriate remuneration, the tour guides are forced to coerce
tourists into making as many purchases as possible in a desperate attempt to meet the
shopping quota and to secure their personal earnings. This inevitably results in the
neglect of their “core services” (Heung, 2008). Accordingly, both tour quality and the
tour guides’ performance are unavoidably perceived as downgraded, thus further
fostering the consumers’ unwillingness to pay high package prices. These events form
a vicious circle.
4. Changing tourist behaviour
Another factor found to have an indirect adverse effect on the service quality of
the tour guides in Macau is the changing tourist behaviour in the tourist-generating
country. More specifically, the changing tourist behaviour identified in this study
relates to the tourists’ spending attitude and purchasing power. Since the relaxation of
travel restrictions in Mainland China, more and more Mainland Chinese tourists have
visited Macau. Their spending attitude has been increasingly prudent along with the
increased travel experience and increased understanding and knowledge about Macau,
either obtained first-hand or through friends and relatives. Furthermore, the extension
of the Individual Visit Scheme (IVS) by the Mainland Chinese government to more
cities has resulted in a rapid growth in the number of Chinese residents who are
allowed to visit Macau as individual travellers. The findings reveal that there are an
increasing number of Chinese tourists who travel on the IVS, especially among the
repeat visitors. For those who travel in tour groups, their demographic profiles have
changed, and they have a relatively lower spending power compared with the tour
group members in previous times. The comment of a Macau tour guide corroborates
“Nowadays, those who join tour groups are mostly elderly, retirees, women, and
children. They usually travel during summer vacation, and have a relatively lower
spending power. Those with higher spending power would not be first time
traveler to visit Macau, and they do not need to join tour groups and will usually
travel as individual travelers. So, the spending powers of Mainland Chinese
group tourists are very different as compared with previous years.”(MOTG-2)
Nonetheless, the below-cost tour fare and below-cost reception fee practices have
remained unchanged. Therefore, the ITOs still face a great financial pressure to recover
costs, and the tour guides still need to meet the shopping quota preset by the ITOs. Due
to these changes in tourist behaviour, it becomes more difficult to meet the shopping
quota, and the incomes earned by the tour guides have declined compared with the
previous times. Consequently, the changes in tourists’ spending attitude and
purchasing power have become one of the sources of conflict between the tour guides
Host destination – tour operators
5. Intense competition between inbound tour operators
As a result of the prevailing below-cost tour fare practice in Mainland China, the
ITOs in Macau have to compete against each other to offer the lowest possible
reception fee or even pay out a certain amount to “bid” for the incoming tours. The
intense competition among ITOs is found to have led to a number of problems
affecting the guiding profession, namely, diminution of guide fee, “mai tou” fee
practice, shopping quota, and prepayment of tour expenses.
Among these problems, the diminution of guide fee is found to have a severe
damaging impact on the performance of the tour guides. As a result of the intense
competition to “bid” for the incoming tours, the ITOs do not receive a proper reception
fee to cover all the necessary expenses for conducting the tour. A number of them have
resorted to lowering or even removing the “guide fee” (the fee paid to a tour guide as a
service fee for conducting the tour) to save costs. The findings further suggest that
even if there is no guide fee for Mainland Chinese tours, many tour guides are still
willing to receive the tour because they have to earn a living. It is not surprising then
that as the incomes of the tour guides are affected, their service quality fall
The intense competition has also brought about the practice of the ITOs asking
the tour guides to pay a fee, usually accordingly to the number of tourists in the tour
group, to “buy” for the right to receive the group. This is commonly known as the “mai
tou” (literally meaning “buy head”) fee in the industry. As the tour guides pay a fee to
“buy” the tour groups, tourists become analogous to “commodities” serving as a means
to help them recover the fee they have paid and to make money. Consequently, the
“mai tou” fee practice has led to an undesirable opportunistic and money-oriented
mentality (Ap and Wong, 2001) in the guiding profession that severely impairs the
service quality of the tour guides.
The findings also indicate that in order to shift the financial pressure to the tour
guides, many ITOs require them to meet a preset shopping quota per tourist. This
statement from an authoritative source from the MATGA discloses the details of this
“Some tour operators would set a quota on how much each tourist must spend. In
this circumstance, the tour guide must bring the tourists to go for shopping and
meet the quota, or else the tour guide will have to pay for a fine to the tour
The observation of another Macau tour guide provides further substantiation on
“Nowadays, the financial pressure on the tour guides is getting higher as the
shopping quota is being set. And the negative tour fare [practice] is getting more
severe…the reception fee received by tour operators is low, and tour guides have
to bear the financial pressure. For example, some tour operators stipulated that it
is only when the shopping quota is met, the tour guides can get the tips….it is
common that there will be no tips, or tips will be deducted if the quota was not
Obviously, if the quota is not met, the tour guides will face the consequences of
paying a fine or their tips being deducted. It is also found that in many cases, the ITOs
in Macau require the tour guides to prepay tour expenses such as meals,
accommodations, or other expenses on behalf of the company. This way, a great deal of
the financial risk is shifted to the tour guides, adding on to their financial pressure.
Current practice suggests that the tour guides may claim these expenses from the
company, but in many cases, they will only be reimbursed at least half a year later. This
unfair loading of the financial burden on the tour guides has caused much dismay and
grievance among those in the tour guiding profession.
Host destination – tour guides
6. Human resource issues
The study findings indicate that a number of human resource issues are besetting
the guiding profession in Macau, namely, lack of recognition of the tour guide by the
employer, low and unstable income, lack of commitment by tour guides, high turnover
rate of guides, and new immigrant tour guides.
The findings uncover that the lack of recognition of the tour guide by the
employer is a crucial issue affecting the service quality of the tour guides. It is found
that many ITOs do not render enough recognition to the serving guides. They are
generally unwilling to offer them competitive remuneration, resulting in the tour
guides being forced to be treated like part-time or freelance employees, although most
of them in reality work as fulltime employees. In addition, due to the below-cost tour
fare practices prevalent in the Mainland Chinese inbound market, the ITOs tend to
employ exploitative means to cut costs and shift the financial pressure to the tour
guides. This has further diminished the recognition given to them. As such, the tour
guides’employment status, benefits, and interests lack protection.
Low and unstable income, as one of the ensuing consequences of the lack of
recognition by the employer, is found to be another key factor that can severely affect
the service quality of the tour guides. It is found that there is no basic salary for the
tour guides in Macau, and most of the time they have to prepay part of the tour
expenses out of their own pockets. The latter is largely attributable to the fact that the
ITOs in Macau do not receive sufficient reception fees from Mainland Chinese travel
agents. The opinion of a veteran tour guide in Macau provides insight on this issue:
“Low income is one of the major factors that would affect a tour guide’s service
quality and professionalism. In Macau, casinos often offer a high salary, and
many tour guides prefer to join the gambling industry instead. As income would
affect motivation, if the salary of tour guides cannot be raised to an acceptable
level, it would be very difficult to attract new tour guides to join the profession, or
experienced guides would choose not to stay in the profession.”(MOTG-1)
As articulated by this veteran tour guide, “income would affect motivation,” it is
not surprising that the motivation of the tour guides are negatively affected by the low
and unstable income. This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that there are an
overwhelming number of tour guides who are on a part-time or freelance employment
basis. As a result, there is a general lack of commitment within the tour guiding
profession, causing a prevailing despondent sentiment among the tour guides that the
guiding profession is beleaguered and lacks a promising future.
Altogether, the above issues have lead to a high turnover rate in the guiding
profession. Many tour guides have been attracted to join other industries if the pay and
working conditions are much more favourable. The account of an authoritative figure
in the MATGAdescribes the high turnover situation:
“The turnover rate of the tour guides in Macau is very high. Many tour guides,
especially those who have higher education background or are proficient in
foreign languages have change jobs. Many of them have joined casinos or hotels
as a receptionist or PR officer. The working conditions and pay are much better.
Among those who stayed, 60% are new immigrant tour guides, or those who are
over 45 years of age whom would not like to change jobs due to their age.”
As revealed by the statement, the problem is further worsened by the acute labor
shortage in many professions in Macau (Kale & De, 2006), as the territory is
developing rapidly as a multipurpose destination and has a high demand for personnel
for many industries. With a low and unstable income, and a lack of recognition by the
employer, the travel industry is facing great challenges in recruiting quality new guides
and retaining skilled and experienced guides in the workforce.
On the other hand, the statement also reflects that the emergence of new
immigrant tour guides is another issue besetting the tour guiding profession in Macau.
The new immigrant tour guides refers to the new immigrants from Mainland China
who have joined the Macau tour guiding workforce. The new immigrant tour guides
have dominated the guiding workforce in Macau in recent years. According to the
MATGA informant, “new immigrant tour guides constitute 60 per cent of the guiding
workforce in Macau.” The service quality of the guiding profession has been more
difficult to control and monitor because of this trend. There are a number of reasons
attributable to this. First, due to the need to minimize operating costs, tour operators
hire relatively inexperienced new immigrant tour guides. As they are inexperienced,
their service quality and professionalism varies greatly. Second, the findings suggest
that even if the new immigrant tour guides have obtained the Tour Guide Card, they
may not be able to introduce or interpret Macau in depth, especially in relation to
cultural aspects. Third, since they have received their education in Mainland China and
have a strong Mainland Chinese cultural influence, they tend to be more ready to
accept the “group mentality” commonly shared by the Mainland Chinese-based tour
operators. This “group mentality” includes unhealthy practices such as the tour guides
paying tour operators a “mai tou” fee to be able to receive tour groups, the tour guides
paying tour operators a deposit, and others as common “norms” in the industry. The
new immigrant tour guides’ ready acceptance of these “norms” has further reinforced
these unhealthy practices within the industry. Fourth, as new immigrant tour guides
share a different mentality and culture with the existing local tour guides, they often try
to form their own circle, union, or association that could lead to fragmentation of the
guiding profession. Consequently, if the service quality of the new immigrant tour
guides are not monitored and controlled effectively, it may have detrimental effects on
the whole quality of the guiding profession.
RECOMMENDATIONS AND CONCLUSION
The development of a sustainable tourism market relies on the concerted efforts of
its various stakeholders, especially the tour guides, as they are one of the most visible
and critical players in the tourism industry. The recognition of their importance and the
effort in raising their level of proficiency and professionalism will benefit the tourism
industry with greater potential for higher profits and greater efficiency. Accordingly, a
number of recommendations are suggested for the policymakers and industry
practitioners attempting to maintain or improve the service quality of the tour guiding
profession in Macau.
First, the below-cost tour fare and below-cost reception fee practices should be
outlawed. Despite the crackdown on the below-cost tour fare practices by Chinese
tourism authorities around 2000 (Zhang et al., 2009), these practices are still in
existence. As Zhang et al. (2009, p.371) has recently pointed out these practices are
“flagrant breaches of consumer rights and business ethics, and they should be
eliminated to ensure the healthy development of both the Chinese outbound tourism and
other similar travel markets.” Consequently, the respective authorities and industry
members in Macau should consider liaising with the tourism authorities in Mainland
China to establish a “minimum price” for receiving tour group, thereby eliminating the
root of the many unhealthy practices currently prevailing in the Mainland China travel
industry. Second, to protect tourists from possible misrepresentation of tour quality
caused by the WTAs in Mainland China, it is essential for the tourism authorities in
Mainland China to work cooperatively with Macau to require all outbound travel agents,
intermediaries, and the ITOs to strictly follow a contract system for the tour itinerary.
Third, tourism authorities in Mainland China should provide education to Chinese
tourists to foster a more appropriate attitude and to reduce excessive emphasis on tour
fares as a priority. The current practice of focusing on the sale of an extremely low tour
fare must be publicized to raise the tourists’ general awareness, as it is incompatible
with the input costs and puts subsequent pressure on tourists to make a substantial
amount of purchases. Fourth, Macau tour operators should be encouraged to recognize
the tour guides’ real contribution by providing them with a proper level of remuneration
and employment status. The Macau government should work with the tour guiding
industry to enforce a minimum level of remuneration for the tour guides. If the guiding
profession has a more reasonable and stable income that does not rely completely on
commissions, then their financial pressure will be relieved, allowing them to focus on
their core and essential guiding roles. Finally, new immigrant tour guides should be
encouraged to “acculturate” into the Macau tour guiding culture and the way of practice
to enhance the cohesion of the guiding profession, for instance by providing additional
training if necessary. This can be achieved by the concerted efforts from the tour guide
association with the support of the travel industry and the government.
This study identifies a number of critical issues affecting the guiding profession in
Macau. Most importantly, it reveals that a number of these problems actually stem from
the unhealthy business practices of the tourist-generating country, namely, Mainland
China in the current study. Despite the well-recognized growing importance of the
Chinese outbound tourism market (UNWTO, 2003), there is a general lack of study on
the prevalence of unhealthy business practices in the tourism sector in Mainland China,
particularly to what extent those unhealthy practices have affected the travel industry
and guiding profession in the host destination. This study scrutinizes the consequences
of these unhealthy practices, thus, adding to the body of knowledge in this domain and
providing a basis for further research.
Finally, this present qualitative study with its limited sample size aimed to
contribute to the literature mainly as a pilot investigation without the intention of
making any generalizations. In addition, it focused on Macau as a single case study due
to time and resource constraints. Future research could undertake a larger-scale
comparative study to explore more deeply the issues and problems faced by the tour
guiding profession in other destinations to allow for comparisons and perhaps,
generalizability to benefit the guiding profession and the tourism industry as a whole.
In fact, the researchers are currently extending their research to investigate the issues in
the tour guiding professions in other Asian regions, so the issues and problems
affecting the broader guiding profession can be examined from diverse perspectives.
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Table 1. Cohen’s Model on the Dynamics of the Tour Guide’s Role
Leadership Sphere (1) Original Guide (Pathfinder)
(4) Professional Guide (Mentor)
Mediatory Sphere (3) Tour-leader
Source: Adopted from Cohen, 1985.
Table 2. Profile of the Interviewees
No. Code Primary Organizational
Tour Guiding Experience &
1.MATGA-1 The Macau Tourist Guide
The Macau Government Tourist
Macau Tour Guide 1
Over 33 years guiding
Over 4 years guiding
Over 15 years guiding
Japanese- / Mandarin- /
4. MOTG-2Macau Tour Guide 2 Female
5.MOTG-3Macau Tour Guide 3 Male
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