tour bus

An Adventure Sightseeing bus loads passengers at the Charleston Visitors Center on Tuesday. Dozens of buses go in and out of the shelter all day long. All Charleston tour guides have passed an exam to be licensed, but the city dropped that requirement this week after a judge said it's an infringement on free speech. Dave Munday/Staff

The news that Charleston has dropped its requirement that paid tour guides be licensed had not trickled down to most of the tourists at the Charleston Visitors Center by Tuesday morning, but those who were told about it didn’t like the change.

"I think they should be licensed," said Laurie McNulty, a teacher from New Jersey.

She didn't like the idea that Charleston would have looser requirements than New York City, which requires sightseeing guides to pass a 150-question test that covers not only public transit and landmarks but religious groups and ethnic foods. The test is based mostly on "Blue Guide New York," which is popular with visitors as well as professionals.

Charleston's test is based on a nearly 500-page guide written by the Historic Charleston Foundation that’s heavy on architectural details. The city was sued by the Institute for Justice, a free-speech group in Arlington, Va., which represented three people who said the test was an infringement on their free speech. U.S. District Judge David Norton ruled in their favor Friday, and city attorneys announced Monday that they are dropping the licensing requirement while they ask Norton to reconsider.

Tourism is the city's biggest money-maker, with last year's economic impact estimated at $7.37 billion, according to the College of Charleston's Office of Tourism Analysis.

The Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, which operates the Visitors Center, advertises 44 different tours on the peninsula. Last year visitors bought $2.3 million worth of tour tickets, according to the CVB.

The city reports 748 certified tour guides have earned or renewed their license within the last three years.

Robert and Sherri Craft of Ashburn, Va., who were visiting Charleston for the first time, were also in favor of making tour guides pass a test.

"I’d think if you were going to spend $35 to $50 a person to go on a tour, I would want someone who knows what he’s talking about," he said. "There are aptitude tests to do a lot of things. I don’t see where that infringes on freedom of speech."

Meanwhile, the Charleston Tour Association is weighing its options, according to Lee Ann Bain, the group's president.

"We’re waiting to see what the city is going to do," she said Tuesday. "We want some form of licensing program."

It’s possible the city could propose a test that’s less burdensome than the version that was struck down. On the other hand, lawyers with the Institute of Justice have said they are ready to sue again if the city comes up with another test.

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"Charleston could in theory take the position that it leaves the door open to a tour-guide license with a different structure,” Institute of Justice attorney Robert McNamara said before Friday’s ruling. “And we, of course, could cheerfully sue them again. Everything will depend on exactly what Judge Norton decides, and then both sides will have to figure out what their response to that decision is."

An appeals court upheld New Orleans' tour guide licensing, though a different appeals court struck down licensing in Washington, D.C.

Both Savannah and Philadelphia abandoned tour-guide licensing after the Institute of Justice challenged their legality. New York, Williamsburg, Va., and St. Augustine, Fla., continue to license their guides.

Charleston's attorneys argued that licensing is necessary to protect visitors from scams and guides who don't know what they're talking about. Several witnesses during the bench trial in April testified that they had heard tour guides tell all kinds of outlandish stories, despite passing the test to get a license.

As of this week, the only license that will be required is a city business license.

Dan Riccio, director of the city's Department of Livability and Tourism, was asked during the bench trial why the city couldn't simply use its ordinance against deceptive, misleading and aggressive solicitation to revoke the business licenses of bad guides. Riccio said that wouldn't be practical, since it's not likely visitors would travel back to Charleston to testify.

"We would not use that particular ordinance," he said. "It would be really difficult to enforce. It's not intended to be used for tour guides. It's intended for the aggressive activities of the timeshare people."

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.