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Travel Top Stories

Tour guides: The most powerful people in travel

Traveller logo Traveller 7/10/2017
Do tour leaders know how much power they have? © Alamy Do tour leaders know how much power they have? Many a country will be judged on the thoughts and the personalities of these people. © Alamy Many a country will be judged on the thoughts and the personalities of these people.

You have to wonder if tour guides realise the power they wield. You have to wonder if they know the control and the influence that they have over the people they're leading, if they understand that their clients' lasting view of an entire country will be shaped by them, and often by them alone.

Think about it. Your tour guide is your main point of contact with the foreign society you're briefly visiting. He or she is the person you go to with all of your questions, with anything you need explained about their society or culture or history.

Why do local people act in a certain way? Why do they believe the things they do? What do they think here about politics? What do they love? What do they hate?

These aren't questions with absolute answers. This isn't, "When was the Battle of Hastings?" These answers will be filtered through personal experience and prejudice. They will always be up for debate. And yet you're forced to trust the word of just one person.

When you're on a tour, using a guide, most of the other meetings you have with local people in that part of the world will be fleeting. You might have a quick chat with a waiter in a restaurant, or interact with people in markets, or speak to staff at tourist sites, but most of the hard stuff will be taken care of by your guide – that is, after all, why they're there.

What that means then is that your tour guide comes to represent the opinions and the beliefs and the attitudes of an entire culture and nation. Ask him or her a question and the answer will be, to you at least, representative of every other person in that country. The guide's version of history will become fact. Their prejudices will become everyone's prejudices.

I had a tour guide in Jordan recently who was asked to explain all sorts of things about his country and its culture. He was asked about religion – Jordanians are not overly fanatical, according to him – about recent history – the country has taken hundreds of thousands of refugees – about sport – football is the main game – and about gender equality – very progressive, to the point where the country has legislated quotas for female representatives in government.

Great. And besides, he added on that point, "When a Jordanian man and a woman get married, do you know who pays for the entire wedding? The man. And if a Jordanian woman decides to get a job, she can keep all of the money to spend on herself, but the man has to support his family. So you see, actually in Jordan we treat our women much better than many other cultures."

Ah… Wait, what? You were doing so well. Of course, that version of gender "equality" might only exist in the mind of our guide, but there's now a whole busload of people who think that is how Jordanians see things. In fact, given our guide had been in the job 10 years or so, there are countless busloads of people out there in the world who think that.

Even though you know, when you're on a tour, that this is only one person you're talking to, and that every country is made up of millions of weird and wonderful people and personalities, it can be hard to avoid forming an opinion of a place based on that one representative who just happens to be showing you around.

I had a guide in Chile once who was a bit of a ladies' man – we nicknamed him "Roberto Caliente", or "Hot Roberto" – and so now I tend to think of Chileans as being a bunch of suave womanisers. I had a guide in Vietnam who was a young guy who just liked a drink and a laugh, which gave me the impression that most Vietnamese are easygoing types who are really not that different to my friends at home.

Most of the time the impression that tour guides give you is a positive one. After all, you don't get into the tourism business because you're terrible at interacting with people. But still, you have to wonder if guides realise that their role is not just to inform and to organise their clients – they also shape opinions, they influence the point of view that their clients will then take home to share with their friends, and to the rest of the world.

Many a country will be judged on the thoughts and the personalities of the people that lead the tours. That's a whole lot of power.

Have you had a tour guide who influenced the way you saw a country? Was it for better or worse? Do tour guides really have the power to influence opinion?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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