A NEW union group to protect the rights of tour guides and ensure their access to jobs in the tourism industry was officially launched yesterday.

This Tourist Guide Chapter, of the Attractions, Resorts and Entertainment Union for the tourism industry, was created last July amid growing complaints that unlicensed tour guides were touting their services to tour companies and tourists.

At its launch at the NTUC Centre in Marina Boulevard, NTUC assistant secretary-general Cham Hui Fong did not mince her words when she criticised the tourism board, which gives out tourist guide licences.

'The authorities are not doing enough to enforce regulations against illegal tourist guides,' said Ms Cham, whose discussions with the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) were first revealed in a letter she wrote to The Straits Times' Forum last October.

She added that the illegal guides were mostly foreigners who, apart from taking the jobs of licensed Singaporean guides, have misinformed tourists and sometimes even ridiculed Singapore's history and culture.

Ms Cham said the union will seek to get the authorities to 'ring fence' the industry such that tours can be conducted only by local guides.

When contacted, the STB said it investigates every tip-off and has doubled spot checks to one every other day. Since last December, it has also held three large-scale checks at major tourist spots, netting 152 suspected cases and resulting in 38 warnings.

The NTUC did not give estimates on how many unlicensed guides there are in Singapore; licensed guides number about 2,600.

Veteran licensed guide Osama Abdul, 70, applauded the union's stance. The guide of 40 years said: 'It is fantastic that they are finally doing this. 'We see these unlicensed guides every day at popular tourist attractions.'

Besides curbing the activities of illegal tourist guides, the chapter also hopes to attract older Singaporeans and housewives looking to return to the workforce because of the flexible hours, Ms Cham said.

The chapter will also seek to obtain compensation from tour companies on behalf of members in cases where guide jobs are cancelled at the last minute.

Part-time freelance tourist guide Emily Chan, 50, said: 'The chapter's move is a step forward... It should be an industry practice for tour companies to compensate guides when they default.'

Memoranda of Understanding were also signed at yesterday's launch by NTUC, Raffles Medical Group and Q&M Dental Group, to provide the chapter's 400 members health-care and insurance benefits that were not previously available to them.