Tourist trap: tours in Colombia under pressure

La candelaria, tours in Colombia
La candelaria is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Bogotá

A local tour operator complains that the heavy handed implementation of arcane rules threatens to throttle the industry.

Imagine you’re a tourist overseas. Your first morning in a new country, you eagerly show up for a tour to get to know the foreign city. The tour you’ve chosen has great reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, and the guide seems knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

Then, halfway through the tour, the police show up, detain the guide like a criminal and send the tourists wandering home.

You ask what the hell’s going on, and learn that this country has an arcane law that requires anybody who ‘guides’ tourists to have done a course in a government technical school. The guide’s ability, knowledge, enthusiasm or even fluency in English are irrelevant: all that counts is the piece of paper issued by the school.

Sound crazy? Sound like something out of a bad movie or a backward communist regime? Sadly, it’s happening in Colombia right now.

Articles 61 and 62 of Ley 300 de 1996 requires all tourist guides to have a professional license card. A further decree (504) in 1997 clarified that there are four ways to obtain said card: from a university qualification, from qualifications done before 1996, or, as for most new guides, by doing a course in the government’s SENA technical schools. No matter that SENA graduates don’t always speak English – or, much less, French, German, Portuguese, etc. No matter that SENA doesn’t teach things like graffiti culture, or bicycling skills or social skills. No matter that innumerable people are already doing a great job as tour guides without the benefit of a SENA course.

Without the certification, you’re not allowed to work.

For many years, the law was not enforced. Recently, however, the group of ‘professional guides’ who’ve either done the course or were grandfathered in – but who often do not speak English or have the knowledge needed to do specialised tours – have been pressuring the police to stop non-certified guides from working.

It’s an absurd situation, which threatens to throw many capable people out of work and is already damaging Colombia’s economy and its international image among travellers whose tours are cancelled for absurd and incomprehensible reasons.

And it’s all because of a totally unnecessary law. Guiding tourists is not like being a doctor or lawyer. If a doctor does bad work, the patient can die. If a tour guide does a bad job, the tourists get bored and go home, and the guide doesn’t get any more clients.

Government certification is no guarantee that someone will do a good job. If it were, there wouldn’t be any bad lawyers. Rather, it forces the business to hire people based on paperwork, rather than ability.

And even if all the SENA tourism graduates did speak foreign languages, and had the necessary knowledge and abilities, the law would still be unworkable, simply because there aren’t enough of them. Tourism is growing fast in Colombia, and SENA’s courses simply can’t keep up.

The best proof of the law’s foolishness is that Colombia is virtually alone in requiring such a burdensome certification for guiding. Few places require or enforce such licensing laws for doing tours in the street.

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Many tour guides, after all, are young people who are also students or who have other jobs. They don’t have the time to do a long SENA course, especially since tourism will not be their lifetime profession.

A few months ago, a young woman from a small town called me. Tourists had begun to visit her town and she thought of doing walking tours, but then learned about the law and got scared. She said there were no ‘professional’ guides in her town and she didn’t have the time or resources to do a two-year course.

“The fines are really huge,” she complained.

It’s absurd to require her to do a course in order to tell visitors where her town was founded and who the town poet was. And it’s sad to see a young person’s ambitions frustrated by a senseless law invented by bureaucrats who don’t know the tourism business.

If Colombia really wants to throttle its burgeoning tourism industry, this is a great way to do it.

Some tour agencies have taken the absurd and expensive measure of employing both a ‘professional’ guide – to carry the guide card – and a second guide who actually speaks English and can do the job. But the police have sometimes even stopped them, alleging that the ‘professional’ guide has to be the one who speaks – even if he or she doesn’t know English.

Ironically, the police crackdown appears to be directed at some of the most formal, established and highly-rated tours in La Candelaria – like mine which has been running for years. Tours which in all other respects are legal, tax-paying companies generating employment and supporting other local businesses. But none of that seems to matter.

The solution here is for the government to cease enforcing a law that’s absurd, unnecessary and destructive, and let people do the work they’re good at.

Mike Ceaser is a long term resident of Bogotá and founder of Bogotá Bike Tours


  1. I could go both ways on this. Precisely because tourism is so important to the Colombian economy now, the downside of a bad (or downright criminal) guide goes way beyond one person having a lousy time. It’s the arbitrariness of the requirement, not the existence of a requirement, that is a problem. I have been on a few Bogota tours in recent years where I knew infinitely more than the guide, and that’s a problem.

    • That would be fine. I think the problem is the requirement for specific preparation. Just skip to the test and the self-taught can take their chances.

  2. I even did some tours with you and I agree some of these non certified tour guides are good. Why don’t they get certified? Why do they want to come with lower rates? That’s a problem because as a certified tour guide I have to pay taxes, a year amount to renovate my register. And to proof I did accomplish with year certified courses to work as a tour guide; the problem for travel agencies and tour guides is the unloyal non ethic concurrence… I speak three languages.. and It’s sad to be in home because nobody is calling and at the same time seeing a lot of groups with uncertified tour guides.. for less responsibilities.

  3. Sena are criminals that have been lobbying to rob funds off entrepreneurs and companies for decades. Our company hires people via temporary contracts because these bloodsuckers demand more money if a company grows above a certain number of employees. It is completely arbitrary.

  4. This rule/law does not bother me. Licenses are a necessity everwhere, and often weed out sketchy con-artists. Having used guides in Guatemala, they are under similar struct guidelines, the service and experience was wonderful. The guides were knowledgable and professional. Anyone looking to do business in a foreign land is always better off following the rules, whether they like them or not. Especially in a land where tourism is booming.

  5. Crony capitalism at work. The guides bought the law; now they want it enforced.
    It happens in the United States, too, of course. Try becoming a carver or even putting hair weaves in without a license.
    The licensing system is in place everywhere, and everywhere it has the same purpose: to reduce competition.

  6. Hey Mike, you’re the best guide in Bogotá by far. I enjoyed your bike tour twice and it’s one of my favorite memories of living there for 3 years. I hope this law goes away and I sure hope this article opens the eyes of the powers that be.


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