They stand on the wrong side of escalators. Their buses take up valuable street space. Some of them even swan around in MAGA hats! Yes, student tour groups often break the unwritten rules of DC-area life. But for the region’s hundreds of professional tour guides, March through June is not just peak student-tour season, it’s also when they traditionally make most of their annual income. “I get it, people want to hate on student tours,” says Tim Krepp, a former full-time professional tour guide who now coordinates student tours for a national company. “But they spend a lot of money here in DC.”
Now, concerns about the coronavirus pandemic threaten this segment of DC tourism, which in 2018 accounted for $7.8 billion in consumer spending, according to the most recent figures from Destination DC. Some of that money accrued to DC’s professional tour guides. It’s not immediately clear how many people make a living from shepherding people around the region’s attractions: The Guild of Professional Tour Guides has about 450 active members, according to its president, Jackie Frend. The DC government, which licenses tour guides, has not responded to a query about how many people hold that certification.
With regard to business, unfortunately, the picture is much clearer. “Our numbers are drastically lower than they usually are,” says Canden Arciniega, a manager and tour guide for Free Tours by Foot, which offers student tours as well as pay-what-you-like tours to people traveling independently. “We have had a large number of school group cancellations.” The organization usually runs a National Mall tour twice a day this time of year; now those happen once every other day. All the tour guides Arciniega hires to take these tours are independent contractors like Rebecca Grawl, who estimates she earns upward of 75 percent of her annual income during March through June. “There’s no teleworking for me,” Grawl says.
Krepp, who contracts with about 90 guides each spring and says he often has to beg other companies to spare him some guides, says there hasn’t been a season this bad since after the 9/11 attacks, which at least were in the past when people weighed trips to DC. Now, he says, they’re worried about what might happen in the future. For most of the last decade, though, DC has seen record-breaking tourist season after record-breaking tourist season. (The country that sent us the most visitors in 2018? China.) “In a certain sense, we’ve been past the capacity to absorb a lot of new tourism in DC for a while now,” Krepp says. Usually this time of year, when the cherry blossoms are near or in bloom, kites decorate the Washington Monument’s airspace, and winter’s gloom traditionally lifts, “Things are just mobbed.”
But a less-crowded path up the Lincoln Memorial’s steps is not atop his or any professional tour guide’s wish list right now. Arciniega says her part-time tour guides, who tend to have other jobs, have graciously agreed to turn over their scheduled tours to the full-timers. Her company is exploring audio tours and streaming tours. It’s asking people who do show up for tours not to pay in cash but to Venmo guides instead, and sharing lists of places where people can wash their hands before and after tours. And it’s shrunk the ratio of tourists to guides, which is usually around 20:1, so people don’t feel like they have to congregate closely to hear. “The good news is all our tours are outside,” she says. “It’s very easy to spread out on the National Mall.”
Grawl works year-round as a tour guide. “I like people to know this is a real job that a lot of people have,” she says. A month or so of a coronavirus downturn will be “weatherable” but beyond that—say, if this continues into the summer—things may get tight for her, financially. She emphasizes that locals are welcome at her tours, and that some of them, like Lincoln assassination tours and Capitol Hill scandals tours, make for great date nights. “This at first felt a little like a government shutdown,” she says. During past shutdowns, “we’ve always said DC is open–there’s more to DC than the government. But this is different because I don’t think the fear is will things be open, but will I get sick?”