Have You Got What it Takes to be a Succesful Tourist Guide ?

Lady and sheepdog herding a group of ducks by imitating Tourist Guides

First, check out some common misperceptions about what a Tourist Guide does, and then compare with the desired personal qualities of a Tourist Guide

On the assumption that “personality” is our original and inherited personal property, do ALL wannabe Guides possess a combination of the desired personal qualities of a Tourist Guide to be successful in this unique occupation?  I have long held the view that some sort of self / pre-assessment should be standard for anyone contemplating becoming a Tourist Guide. Whilst that might sound harsh to some, and controversial to others, it could save the unsuitable a lot of stress, heartache, and money. 

Some of the qualities ideally required of a Tourist Guide backed up by personal examples:-

Enjoy People

Lions indicating to Tourist Guides that liking each other is essential

This would seem to be a no brainer, but it’s a fact of life, that there are individuals living amongst us who were definitely at the back of the queue when the interpersonal skills and social grace genes were handed out.

Might seem obvious, but in my early days met a recently qualified Guide who admitted, “I don’t particularly enjoy mixing with people”. The obvious question was, “Why on earth did you consider becoming a Tourist Guide ?”, to which the gobsmacking response was, “I’m between jobs, and just thought I’d try it” – DUH ?! 


A dog expressing the empathy that a Tourist Guide needs

You might need to look in the dictionary for this one, which if you do, may well indicate that it’s a quality that could do with a bit of brushing up.

It was a private day Tour with the Keynote speaker and his wife who were on a day off from an International Conference. Just after lunch, I detected client attention wandering to the point of concentration more on an I-Pad than where we were, or any pearls of wisdom I was dispensing. Polite smiles from the wife, but total disengagement from hubby.

The atmosphere had tangibly changed. On diplomatically enquiring if an early return to the hotel would be preferred, there was an audible sigh of relief that the suggestion had been pre-empted. This was reinforced by the gentleman’s own admission that his speech was the priority, and the closer it got, the more his levels of concentration shifted. Been there, got the T-shirt, totally understood.


Chameleon indicating the powers of adaptability a Tourist Guide needs

Even if they’re standard, no two Tours are ever identical. It’s the people, and group dynamics that make them differ. Adaptability is a normal part of a Tourist Guide’s routine.

There have been many examples of this, here’s just one. A private schedule with an intergenerational family from the USA. Small children, teenagers, Moms & Dads, and most important of all, the paying Grandparents. On meeting the group at the airport the patriarch cattle rancher Grandpa made an immediate beeline for yours truly. A cursory shake of hands, and straight to “business”. 

He growled:- “You only have to do ONE thing. Keep THEM happy” – pointing at the children. “If you keep THEM happy THEY are happy” – pointing at the parents. “If THEY are happy, then I’M HAPPY !” Message received loud and clear – SIR ! Any schedule there was for the week went largely out the window from that moment, but must confess to conducting one of the most memorable and enjoyable schedules of my entire Guiding career.

Story Teller

Cat listening attentively to a parrot's story

Used where relevant and appropriate, stories, whether personal or not, can add value to the visitor experience by creating informality and natural interest. 

A very simple example that has worked for me and many visitors over the years, is the feel-good story of Able SeamanJust Nuisance, the Royal Navy Great Dane that is part of South African folklore, and no more so than in the historic Naval town of Simons Town. If you’re not familiar with the story, Tourist Guide Wannabe or not, then perhaps it should go on your educational bucket list.

Know stuff     

Wise old owl looking every bit a knowledgeable Tourist Guide

Stating the obvious I hear the cries.  Sure, to a point, but knowledge doesn’t stop on completing Tourist Guide School, that’s merely the start.

Tourist Guides are perpetual students, and if you want to really build a reputation for yourself, learning shouldn’t, and doesn’t ever stop, and it certainly isn’t just about, “what’s the name of that tree……..”, “that building is………”.

It’s embarrassing when asked for a restaurant suggestion, only to be greeted the following morning by, “that restaurant you suggested for dinner doesn’t exist anymore !” 

Yes, guilty as charged. It only needs to happen once, and you’ll never ever get that sort of advice wrong again.


Cat expressing the enthusiasm of a Tourist Guide

If enthusiasm for your role as a Tourist Guide is non-existent, you’re dead in the water. ‘Nuff said.  

Know when to shut up !

Chimpanzee switched off by an insensitive Tourist Guide

Tourist Guides who are under the mistaken impression they need to talk ALL the time, do both themselves and their visitors a gross disservice.

A fellow Guide, I’m embarrassed to say, was cringingly overheard outside the wine cellar of a beautiful historic wine farm whilst keeping his unfortunate charges standing in the hot sun as his endless diatribe droned on and on in front of the less than interested Group. He seemed totally insensitive to the very clear vibe of his charges that it might be better to stop, and actually just sample the product !  


Ape being bored by a verbose Tourist Guide

We were given two ears and one mouth for a reason, which sadly, the motor mouths amongst us just don’t seem to understand.

Either during general discussion or merely listening to what visitors are chatting about can provide valuable indicators to best add value to their experience.

Picking up on an interest of some visitors from the USA regarding their desire to purchase some authentic local Pottery without paying top dollar at shopping Mall designer stores, it was possible to adapt their schedule accordingly.  Introducing them to a local potter and sculptor, who works out of his garage in a below the radar suburb that most people just pass by, made their day on many fronts. Actually meeting a very talented, unassuming craftsman in his preferred place of work, gave complete authenticity to high-quality products that perfectly satisfied their requirements, AND at very favourable prices.  

It was win-win. They were ecstatic, and I got a big kick out of having had the opportunity to set it up.  All made possible by not saying a word.

Sense of humour 

Hyena producing a fake laugh at a Tourist Guide's joke

Experience has proved that jokes should be used sparingly, and appropriately. It’s all too easy to misjudge, and get it wrong – ask any stand-up comedian.  

However, a natural sense of humour is invaluable for a Tourist Guide. It’s an oxymoron – get that dictionary out again – that humorous experiences can often match that contrasting Tourist Guide experience – the Tour From Hell ! If you haven’t got a sense of humour when THAT one comes along I would question your long term potential in the profession.    

“If you could choose one characteristic that would get you through life, choose a sense of humour”


When all is said and done, don’t just listen to one point of view. I don’t consider myself in competition with anybody, in fact, it’s the reverse. The more people who are prepared to share the better. Different perspectives on similar subjects can broaden all our horizons. That said, click here to put that to the test.

Supplementary Reading

As reinforcement of what it takes to be a successful Tourist Guide, I would strongly suggest reading the following article written by a very well-travelled Travel Blogger. On hitting the click-through that follows just scroll down a bit when you get there to get to the article itself. http://justwanderlustblog.com/2014/01/the-difference-between-a-good-tour-guide-a-great-tour-guide/


I have been a South African registered Tourist Guide for some 24 years, and also developed my own Tour Operating Business in keeping with sound business principles. I can help you with all of this.

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