Tour guides next in the firing line


CHIANG RAI, 30 August 2018: Today’s watchword is ‘overtourism’ a newcomer to the tourism dictionary, but it is trending and gaining considerable traction.

The ‘overtourism’ blight is really a symptom of over industrialising travel turning it into a massive commercial endeavour worth billions and growing, when it’s essentially a social activity.

The problem is that we all want to explore and travel. It’s in our DNA and low-cost airlines unlocked the Pandora box of tricks to make travel affordable for almost everyone.

‘Overtourism’ is bound to happen at destinations that we have all determined to visit before we die.

We can’t rewrite tourism history. We have moved on to recognise that travel is a basic right that should be enjoyed by everyone regardless of status or wealth.

That’s why we have to be cautious when say revenue should always be the benchmark, or measure of tourism success. If that means limiting access to just wealthy travellers who have the means to stay in up-scale hotels and fly with full-service airlines then a good portion of the population that derives income from so-called budget travellers will suffer. There has to be a balance to ensure communities benefit from tourism, not just corporations or elite family enterprises.

Today, the mood is to de-industrialise travel to recognise its value as a social activity. Disruptive technology is helping this process. Airbnb allows the house owner to rent a room and curate a travel experience. Airbnb is a leader in combing stays with an opportunity to experience a lifestyle through the eyes of local experts.

Uber cuts into the principle that only registered and government approved taxi companies can transfer us around a city, or to and from an airport.

Over decades, governments and travel trade associations have played the game of protectionism to its limits by setting standards for everything from a toilet to a spa and requiring layers of registration processes and expensive fees to be simply a travel supplier.

We have industrialised travel for all the wrong reasons and it is limiting those who benefit to just a few powerful wealthy stakeholders who can jump the legislative hurdles. If there is a lesson to be learned, it’s clearly that travel enables communities to prosper and claim ownership of travel experiences. Disruptive technology allows them to be players in social tourism, unencumbered by out-dated laws and often-restrictive standards and regulations.

As disruptive technology demolishes the traditional layers and sectors of travel there is no doubt guides in Southeast Asia are next in the firing line. They have been institutionalised, protected and are now about to become endangered. As travellers demand special experiences the traditional tour guide is found wanting.

There is still plenty of room for the traditional tour guide working for a travel firm, but not at the expense of a country being unable to harness experts who are prepared to share their skills and knowledge with travellers to enhance a cultural or travel experience.

Art and heritage experts, historians, sports enthusiasts, cooks, traditional medicine gurus, farmers and gardeners can all be players to create and share travel experiences.

Countries in ASEAN have a wealth of retired professors, teachers and other professionals who having graduated to the silver generation are happy to share their cultural expertise with travellers.

They can’t because countries have built a fortress of protection around tour guides, which makes it illegal for a local, expert, friend, or tour buddy to interact with visitors.

Technology will disrupt tour guiding through artificial intelligence and simple apps on mobile phones that explain the sightseeing accurately at every location. But travellers want more. They want to understand, experience and interact with local experts and touch base with a community.

Disruptive technology is already intruding in the world of tour guiding, but smart governments will recognise that if they tweak the law the social aspects of tourism will benefit. Whether we like it or not the way we explore a destination will change dramatically and it is more to do with social values than hard cash.