Sightseeing Volunteer Guide (観光ボランティアガイド)

A sightseeing volunteer guide is an individual who voluntarily assists and guides tourists for free or a nominal fee on a continual basis. There are sightseeing volunteer guide organizations associated with sightseeing areas throughout Japan, and these accept guide requests via groups such as tourist associations.

The role differs from traditional tourist guides as the focus is on the individual, and tours are conducted by those who are differentiated from tourism industry professionals such as those organize specialist fee-charging guides who conduct eco and nature excursions.


Sightseeing volunteer guides do not operate individually but as part of an organization. The majority of such organizations were assembled under the leadership of groups related to local public governments, chambers of commerce and industry, as well as hotel associations.

There are many volunteer organizations that accept advance bookings through tourism associations, but there recently are also those such as the 'Beppu Hatto Walk' of the Beppu-onsen Hot Spring area that allow anyone who assembles at a given place at a certain date and time to participate.

The main conditions that define the role are the fact that it is voluntary, undertaken on a continual basis and conducted personally. Tourism volunteer guides are not employees of tour guide companies but are, as the name suggests, individuals who voluntarily join groups and serve as guides. This is done not on a one-off basis but on a continual basis. Therefore, although they are part of an organization and obey its rules, the itinerary of tours can effectively be determined by the guide and may be conducted in one's own words. Some such guides are so enthusiastic that they create their own guide manuals and guidelines and even order special clothing.

Origin and development

Local historians have long conducted talks for local residents as well as schoolchildren and pupils during field trips but this phenomenon does not fall under the definition of tourism.

Tourism volunteer guides began to come to attention in the first half of 1990s and their numbers rapidly increased throughout the country from 1995.

Tourism volunteer guides arose to meet the needs of those tourists who were not satisfied with talks about the usual sightseeing spots and wanted to acquire a deep knowledge and discover something new.

Major reasons for choosing to become a tourism volunteer guide include the desire to use one's knowledge acquired through lifelong study to educate visiting tourists to attain a feeling of self-fulfillment, a sense of pride in the area in which one lives, and taking pleasure in meeting new people from different places.

In addition, one cannot overlook the needs of regional governments hoping to increase the numbers of tourists and visitors, related industries whose interest is to increase the length of tourist stays, and travel agencies aiming to promote new attractions. Tourism administration bodies find it desirable to use volunteers to increase income by increasing the numbers of visitors while ensuring that they see as much as possible and stay for as long as possible.

There are fears that some disreputable solicitor will attempt to use the label of 'guide,' so in order for legitimate guides to maintain their reputation, a certain level of certification is required. Sightseeing volunteer guides have been able to maintain their current status due to the sense of security and clearness that comes from the fact that they are volunteers and therefore free as well as the security and guarantees that come with an established brand. Another reason is the actual assurances (also an element of a brand) that come from their connections to public organizations.

Recent trends

Administrative system
A system exists in which volunteer guide courses are conducted throughout the country and a certificate is awarded to those who complete a certain curriculum.

The number of such guides who receive financial compensation is gradually increasing. It can therefore be said that the sector is becoming commercialized.

Affiliation with travel agents


Relationships between volunteers
When a group of people with the same intentions come together, things often begin well but as the number of members increase, human relationships can become strained due to differences in levels of commitment and issues arising from social status as well as differing levels of experience. In other words, likes and dislikes between individuals emerge within the group. As they differ from business or administrative bodies, tourism volunteer guide organizations do not have a definite objective (mission) or rules and procedures in place to achieve this mission. It is for this reason that such human relationship issues are difficult to manage. There are even such groups in which there is no rule stating that those who violate regulations will be forced to leave. Administrative organizations that have contact with these volunteer groups are reluctant about intervening in such matters. One could go so far as to say that the presence or absence of such problems is dependent on the nature of the group leader.

Relationships with administration
Where volunteer groups are organized and operated based on the demands of administrative bodies, there are few problems as long as there is a sense of duty as being part of a tourism policy but there is a fear that this can change to an attitude of merely cooperating with the tourism policy.

Tour subcontracting
Sightseeing volunteer guides mainly handle individuals and groups but recently, travel agencies that are aiming to develop new products and cut package costs have begun to pay attention to and use sightseeing volunteer guides in order to cut back on entrance and guide fees while conveniently providing customers with a way to spend time.

This has meant that guides have become treated like subcontractors, are given various instructions and it is said that travel agencies have emerged that order guides to condense two hour talks into one hour due to tour scheduling. Not all of those who participate in tours are interested in the guides, so some participants may either not listen to what the guide is saying or appear apparently bored.

Separation from professional guides
The need to separate tourism volunteer guides from professional guides arises in areas where both are active. As volunteer guides operate ever more closely to areas worked by professional guides, they may encroach on their areas of operation and there is concern that the volunteer or low-fee sector will impede the fee-charging market.
(There is now a slight problem that it is difficult for professional guides to become established in areas in which volunteer guides are organized.)

The limitations of volunteering
Volunteer organizations are emerging that are considering claiming certain expenses when conducting travel agency tours such as those mentioned above. Tourism volunteer groups would like to be able to operate free of charge but as they become part of tour itineraries, the label of 'volunteer' is becoming gradually more difficult to justify.

On the other hand, the needs of local public bodies are increasing as described above. In addition, if these guides were to charge fees, there is the fear that they may be withdrawn from tour itineraries in a market in which competitiveness is so dependent on price, so it is desirable that they remain free or very inexpensive.

It is due to such factors that the gap is widening between the volunteer guide organizations that are built on good will and the travel agencies and tourism industry workers that operate according to business principles.

The future

One way that the above problems can be overcome is by guide organizations becoming non-profit organizations.

Payment of a reasonable price
A volunteer guide organizations are valuable entities for local revitalization and also do not require the financial support of customers and travel agencies, local public bodies as well as tourism industry workers and related groups should be expected to make the appropriate payments while it is also necessary for guide organizations to transform themselves into the recipients of such payment.

The necessity for systematic operation
In order for guide operations to be continued in a systematic manner, it is desirable to have a built-in mechanism (that would be similar to a public company with the exception of certain differences) which provides leadership as well as encouraging the continuous study of members.

[Original Japanese]