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Up close and personal with the Budapest tour guides

To be a successful guide, you need so much more than an ability to stand in front of one of Budapestʼs classical tourist sites and give a simple lesson in art history.

Italian-Hungarian tour guide Áron Coceancig (also below), and a group of satified tourists.

What does it mean to be a tour guide? It is not just walking the streets of wonderful cities, pointing at various monuments, explaining the architectural features of buildings to a group of tourists. That is what a tour guide does. But to be a tour guide, you need more. A real guide has to enchant people, to know all the strangest stories, to be patient with the youngest and the oldest guests alike. Tour guiding is an all-encompassing profession that is so much more than a simple lesson in art history.

To understand more deeply what is really entailed, the Budapest Business Journal spoke with travel agencies, the government tourism department and a number of those men, women, students, retirees, and part-time workers who spend their days learning and discovering the history and the beauty of such a splendid setting as Budapest.

“I decided to become a tour guide because my cultural background is strongly linked to the Hungarian history and culture,” says Áron Coceancig, an Italian-Hungarian tour guide who created his own company, Sfumature di Budapest (or Shades of Budapest), after getting his license in May. “I recently completed a PhD in the history of Eastern Europe, and I always had a passion for Hungary, and Budapest in particular, a beautiful city that never stops amazing me. So it was an obvious choice, especially because the tourism business is increasing now and it offers different possibilities.”

Deep history

What is he hoping to achieve through his chosen career? “There are two main goals that I would like to achieve with this job,” he tells the BBJ. “Firstly, an economic profit; the tourism market is more rewarding than a research worker’s salary. But it was not just an economic motivation to push myself into this business. I know Hungary and Budapest very well and I know how often tourists are just shown the classics sights. I like to help them discover new places, events and less known characters, to be able to tell them the deep and troubled Hungarian history. This way, tourists can better understand the culture and mentality of this remarkable and peculiar country.”

So, what are the challenges of operating in a small company? “One of the biggest challenges that I set for myself is to be able to match the tourism and commercial side with the cultural and historical one,” says Coceancig. “To reach this I need to have a great familiarity with the language that I use during guided tours, and fortunately I am Italian native speaker, which surely is an advantage. But I must also be able to tell them the history and culture of the country in an innovative, simple and interesting way. The second challenge I set for myself is to do educational projects involving students. Last year, for example, I did lots of projects covering the steps of the World War 1. In the near future I would like to do more tours and projects about 20th century history and the importance of overcoming prejudices.”

The peak times for guiding are from June until September, along with Christmas and Easter, says Coceancig. “Tourists are travelling the whole year, just there are different kind of tourists. In fall and spring, for example, there are lots of school trips, educational projects and tourism linked to conferences and international events. So we always have work to do even if at a different intensity. The capacity to be available and receptive to these different types of tourism is part of the skill and adaptability of the guide.”

Safe and secure option

Although this is his first full year as a guide, Coceancig says he does have some feel for how 2016 has compared with previous years. “Talking with colleagues and clients, I have the feeling that tourism increased this year and the positive trend is not over. Causes are different, such as a better development of touristic infrastructures, more low cost flights to the city, Budapestʼs cheapness, the great number of hotels and cultural/music events. I would underline that most tourists chose Budapest because they are really taking into consideration risks and security; in Hungary they feel more secure.”

Take a walk in the city center and you will find many guides (mostly young students) with badges in various colors. They are offering free walking tours, and have become part of the local tourism market only recently, although they have been having huge success all over Europe.

A free walking tour is a good way to familiarize yourself with the city, to learn about the history and at the same time to discover something about modern life. In Budapest you can find lots of tours running everyday and covering the most famous attractions. Most of the tourists that choose these guided tours are young people, interested in socializing with other travelers and not wanting to spend too much money. There is no obligation to pay; if the tourists enjoy the tour they are, of course, welcome to tip their guide.

Taking in the Budapest views on a walking tour

Local nightlife

And if you are the type of tourist that enjoys a pub-crawl, there is now a perfect way to discover some of Budapest’s best ruin pubs and clubs and experience the local nightlife. Kristóf Balogh, city manager of Original Budapest Tours, the Hungarian business of walking tour company Original Europe Tours, explains the attraction. “The main aim of the pub crawl is to socialize and meet up with other travelers, and to explore the nightlife scene of Budapest. During the summer months there is an average of 60 people per night; during the off season an average of 20-30 people, depending on the given month.” A guide takes groups around the city from one bar to the next one, providing free drinks for guests and organizing drinking games.

“The feedback we have received from our guests is very good so far, and we are getting good reviews on the web as well. Tourists enjoy our pub crawls because we take them to Budapestʼs unique ruin bars, which are not common in other cities. We also provide an open bar for one hour and a VIP entry to the last club,” comments Balogh. “Pub crawls during the summer seemed more popular than last year, although there are fewer British tourists overall, at least on the pub crawls. According to some hostel managers, and Iʼm noticing this as well, this summer the season is dying down quicker than usual, but Budapest seems to attract more tourists each year.”

How to become a tour guide

So what are the basic requirements to become a tour guide? The Hungarian regulations are under the control of the Tourism Department of MEKH, the Hungarian Trade Authority. The department licenses, registers and monitors established tour guides. Tamás Békési, head of the department, explains that, first, would-be guides must attend a year-long course at a professional school, at the end of which they take exams in Hungarian and in at least one other foreign language, although the government will also validate a license from abroad. “For this reason, a lot of Chinese people are doing guided tours in their mother tongue,” Békési says. Currently there are 13,337 guides registered in Budapest, but the actual number is probably higher. “A company does not have to be registered, because the license is just for individuals, but if there is no business and no salary – in other words a free tour is offered – registration is not required.”