Can tourist guides make a living

Tourism update

By: Joleen du Plessis

According to statistics, a small number of registered tourist guides are permanently employed and the majority (more than 60%) work as freelance guides for tour operators and so earn an income sporadically.

Some guides have started their own tour operating business and do their own marketing and mostly provide unique, off-the-beaten-track tours. This is a refreshing addition to the tourism product that is offered by big operators, but not many guides can afford to take this step. Mostly these guides-cum-tour-operators also work for other tour operators as a sideline, although in my experience, most contracts the tour operators offer to guides discourage this.

Government sponsors training of tourist guides often enough to make me wonder where these qualified guides will find work. Many turn to other professions after they qualify from these sponsored programmes due to the lack of work opportunities.

In addition, there are the illegal guides who also take work from these newbies as the illegal guides often work for lower rates and thus get the jobs.

New guides need experience to grow their guiding skills and to become known in the industry so that they can get more work, but the saturation of the market, illegal guiding and the lack of attractive tourism products and attractions in their area often prohibit them working enough to earn a living. Often guides are trained in areas that are too far away from a tourism hub to allow them to step into the workplace. It is also discouraging that experienced guides rather criticise than assist new guides.

My decades in the tourism industry wearing various hats have shown me that something needs to be done to improve the situation.

One solution could be to multi-skill guides so that they become more employable and thus earn a salary. As qualified guides, they could be equipped and employed by establishments in other capacities and, in addition, also guide when the opportunity is offered by the establishment. In my guiding experience I have seen that guides are indeed used as bar or table attendants after they guided the guests, yet I doubt that these guides are qualified to do the job of a bar or table attendant.

Multi-skilling workers in the industry, could solve many challenges. Young entrants could be permanently employed and so earn a salary as a receptionist, a table or bar attendant and guide guests at the establishment when the need arises – thus getting the experience they need without fear of not being able to put bread on the table.

This would require a programme that would equip prospective entrants to multi task and so become a valuable asset to the industry. Proper training programmes that will multi-skill entrants, will not only enable the tourism practitioner to guide and/or attend at the bar, for instance, but will lead the practitioner to understand the different roles of colleagues in the multifarious industry. This could only assist in presenting a united front of seamless positive customer care experiences to the client.

Such a programme exists, but is not attended well enough to make inroads, because government sponsorships mostly address only the guiding sector.

Another possible solution is the standardisation of rates. The industry needs sectoral determination to implement this. This can be achieved by forming a union for tourism workers. However, when looking at the criteria of unionisation of the sector, membership requires that a worker has to be permanently employed and thus eliminates the self-employed guide. A united (unionised) front will take the industry closer to sectoral determination and eliminate the many grey areas that determine the roles of workers in the industry. Establishing a union has proved to be a futile exercise in the current situation although there has been an often-expressed need to have a union.

It is time for us to develop a broader vision of what the industry needs and to equip workers, and especially tourist guides, in such a way that they can earn a living from day one.