Tour guides suspected to be operating without a licence can now be searched, questioned and arrested on the spot, after legislation was passed in Parliament yesterday.
The amendments are part of efforts to raise the professionalism and standards of the local tourism industry, with unlicensed guiding becoming more apparent in recent years even as visitor arrivals to Singapore have almost doubled over the past decade.
Second Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran said: "(It) tarnishes the image and impedes the professional development of the industry and licensed tourist guides."
The number of licensed tourist guides stands at almost 2,400 today, up from fewer than 1,500 a decade ago.
Under amendments that address limitations in the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) Bill, officers from the statutory board can now arrest suspects who refuse to provide their personal particulars during preliminary investigations.
Previously, offenders could not be detained or penalised on the spot, and foreigners could leave the country before investigations were completed.
Officers now also have the power to search premises and the people inside them "when they reasonably believe that unlicensed guiding has taken place" there.
Anyone who obstructs STB's investigations or provides false information can be fined up to $5,000.
It is also now an offence for guides to allow their badges to be used by unlicensed colleagues.
Besides giving officers more enforcement powers, the new legislation also seeks to improve the standards of guides here.
One amendment empowers the STB to issue codes of practice. These will be developed in consultation with the industry, said Mr Iswaran.
Those who do not comply with the codes may be suspended, have their licences revoked, or fined up to $1,000.
Another clause allows STB to tier licensing categories according to guides' capabilities and experience.
Such formal recognition is an important incentive for tourist guides to upgrade and differentiate themselves, added Mr Iswaran.
Certain groups, like heritage and nature guides, could be exempted from licensing so long as they meet certain conditions that will be established later.
This is part of the STB's plan to accommodate and support emerging guiding models that are ground-up initiatives, said Mr Iswaran.
Rising in support of the Bill, Mr Ang Hin Kee (Ang Mo Kio GRC) said many guides he had spoken to welcomed the new laws, as their incomes had stagnated due to illegal guides undercutting their fees.
Mr Ang asked if Singapore had a plan to ensure sufficient tour guides to provide good quality services for the market.
Mr Iswaran said a task force has been formed to review the career progression framework for guides.
Mr Ang also suggested setting up a mediation centre, where freelance guides can settle disputes with their travel agents instead of seeking legal recourse.
The minister said that he has asked STB to consult the National Trades Union Congress and the Society of Tourist Guides Singapore on whether setting up a mediation centre is feasible.