Guides push back on walking tour rules

Mike Vitka of Spellbound Tours explains some of Salem's history in front of St. Peter's Church. He was among the tour guides concerned about restrictions on tours considered by the City Council on Tuesday night.

SALEM — As officials continue to review potential changes to the rules for city walking tours, licensed guides are urging them to instead crack down on unlicensed tour companies that bring buses full of tourists into Salem. 

A proposal from Mayor Kim Driscoll filed with the City Council earlier this month would make a number of changes to the city's rules governing tour groups, including banning voice amplification on specific downtown streets and the use of candles "or any other item with a flame." The proposed changes would also limit tours to a certain size.  

Those changes are now before the council's committee on Ordinances, Licenses and Legal Affairs, which spent nearly two hours Thursday night reviewing the new rules and hearing comment, primarily from licensed tour guides in the city. The changes are staying in committee for the time being.

But those who spoke Tuesday night warned the proposed rules could drastically affect the city's walking tour industry — and that the local, licensed guides aren't the problem. 

"The tour companies here care passionately about the history of the city," said Lara Fury, owner of Black Cat Tours. "That's why we started the tour companies in the first place. That's why we're here now."

Mike Vitka of Spellbound Tours referenced an online review of Salem that said tours are a primary draw for visitors.

"If we take the option away, what are all these people going to do?" Vitka asked. "They'll wander around, see shops closed. They won't be able to get tour tickets, and then they'll go home and tell everybody there's nothing to do in Salem."

But city councilors cited several instances that showed a need for more regulation. 

Ward 3 City Councilor Steve Lovely described getting emails talking about tourists sitting on gravestones in the nearly 400-year-old Charter Street Burial Ground. The cemetery, known as the Burying Point, is a tourist attraction as the final resting place for several historic figures, including two Witch Trial judges, and will soon undergo more than $600,000 in restoration work. 

Ward 7 City Councilor Steve Dibble, who described himself as "a huge fan of having tours move through the city," agreed something has to be done.

"I'm looking at the wear and tear within our cemeteries or park space, open space, people cutting through a flower bed — and I've seen it two or three times now — when they're trying to catch up with the rest of the tour because there are 60 or 70 in the tour group," he said, "and they can't quite hear what's going on and the speaker has already started."

Licensed tour guides in Salem are required to take an exam and pay a fee. They say the issues that spurred the proposed rule changes — like large groups clogging sidewalks or trespassing on public property — stem from unlicensed, out-of-town tour companies that aren't as well-versed in Salem lore as those who live and work in the city. 

"I've watched numerous problems with companies that don't have licenses at all, even local companies," said Tim McGuire, of Salem Night Tour. "To us — as far as going out, paying for a license and doing our best to abide by whatever the city wants us to do — it's hard to watch companies come in and do what they want."

When as many as 75 people pour off a bus parked by the Hawthorne Hotel, McGuire said, it's typically the city tour groups like his that hear about it when complaints are lodged.

"The neighbors, they don't know the people," he said. "We always get the backlash of that, because they assume it's us."

Guides said there were some parts of the regulations they agree with, including the group size limit. Ultimately, the city's police chief would choose that number, although discussion Thursday indicated that limit would be 50 participants per tour. 

"Fifty seems to be the number we all agree on," McGuire said. "But they pull up in a bus, get off sometimes with 60 to 75 people just walking through town and doing a tour. No matter what we decide in this room, who's enforcing? In my 12 years here in a tour company, nobody enforces."

Guides also agreed to a ban on tours of Proctor's Ledge, where the city is nearly done building a memorial to 19 people who were accused of witchcraft and executed there 325 years ago.

"We've known about that site for years," Fury said, "and none of us have been going up there."

As for the other rules, tour operators called for case-by-case self-regulation.

"We want to make sure this is an even playing field for everybody involved in the tour industry," Fury said. "As long as that's how this is being done, you won't find any of us objecting to it."

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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