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The art of being a tourist guide in Vienna

February 21, 2017

International Tourist Guide Day is set on February 21, allowing tourist guides around the world to celebrate their work. Here's a look at a typical day of a tourist guide in Vienna.

Bundespräsidentenwahl in Österreich Stephansdom
Image: DW/M. Hengster

Vienna clocked up 15 million overnight stays in 2016 - an increase of 4.4 percent over the previous year. With an immense squad of 900 well trained tourist guides, the Austrian capital is ready to meet the demand of a growing number of visitors. "We offer some 400 different themed tours. This variety is unique in the world," said Christa Bauer, the President of the Association of Licensed Guides in Vienna.

These include tours that focus on the history of taxes, pleasure and eroticism or even tours that involve a rented luxury limousine with a tour guide. To mark International Tourist Guide Day, there will be free tours on offer in the fine arts Kunsthistorische Museum and the Austrian National Library.

International Tourist Guide Day was founded 25 years ago by the Vienna-based World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations, which aims to ensure that tourist guides meet high ethical and professional standards.

Vienna Friedensreich Hundertwasser waste incineration plant
In Vienna, even a waste incineration plant is a work of art by Friedensreich HundertwasserImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Schmitt

In Austria, those wishing to professionally show visitors around the city have to complete training that takes on average four semesters and is comparable to a Bachelors' degree. The course covers history, art history, music and geography as well as how to present this knowledge well and confidently to a group. "We're not ornamental, we have a reputation to maintain," says Bauer. 

In comparison, in Germany, tour guide qualifications are not currently regulated, but the German National Tourist Guide Association is advocating certification. The 6,500 registered association members have at least undergone a basic training, which takes several hours. Some 700 of them even have a certificate which is earned after 600 hours of training and makes tourist guides officially well qualified, the Association's spokesperson Sonja Wagenbrenner said. 

City guide Eugene Quinn in front of the Haus der Zeit in Vienna
City guide Eugene Quinn in front of the Haus der Zeit in ViennaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Röder

Unconventional guided tours

Once a month, Eugene Quinn takes interested visitors on a tour of Vienna's architectural blunders, so he shows them the "ugly side of Vienna." This tour involves taking the guests to 19 buildings, including the huge, indestructible World War II flak towers, the Haus der Zeit with a mural depicting sperm and weeping women, as well as the glass roof extension that cost millions and makes it look like a UFO landed on top of the old building.

Quinn says he loves Vienna. His "Vienna Ugly" tour is his way of making a city known for its beauty appear a little hipper and cooler. The 49-year-old Brit has no special training, which means he is working in a grey area, tolerated by Viennese authorities. In the past, he's had to pay a fine of 380 euros ($404) twice, he says. The publicity caused by the fines and the subsequent dispute meant that his predominantly English-language tours suddenly had 100 participants.

Österreich Wien - Der Gefechtsturm im Augarten
Anti-aircraft flak tower in Vienna's AugartenImage: picture-alliance/IMAGNO/Archiv Urs Schweitzer

On his tour, he also takes visitors to a building designed by star architect Hand Hollein. Its rather uneven design is reminiscent of an "exploded kebab," Quinne says.  With its blue and green façade and corner towers, the building of the health ministry looks more like a "multi-story car park in Dubai," according to the tour guide. 

Haas-Haus in Vienna
Haas-Haus in Vienna by architect Hans HolleinImage: imago

 His definition of "ugly" has nothing to do with grey and drab architecture, as that is merely boring. "Ugly is when you wanted something marvelous and you failed spectacularly," he says. 

The façade of the health ministry in Vienna
The façade of the health ministry building in ViennaImage: picture-alliance/picturedesk.com/W. Gredler-Oxenbauer

While the city is prepared to look the other way as far as Quinn is concerned it is not so forgiving on those who decide ad hoc to show their group around St. Stephen's Cathedral. Only those who are qualified tourist guides in their country of origin can hope to be allowed, on a case-by-case basis, to lead a sight-seeing tour within the EU, Bauer tells us in view of the bus tours with their self-declared tour guides. Those in breach of this rule face cautions and cancellations of the tours. "Italy is even stricter: Foreigners there will only be issued guide permits for specific regions - like for instance Venice." 

Matthias Röder (dpa)