The importance of tour guides in promoting responsible tourism is often overlooked, tells us Evarist March Sarlat of NaturalWalks in Catalonia, Spain in this interview. He also shares his views on what makes a great tour guide and gives tips how tour operators can engage with sustainability for better client experiences, community relations and long-term economic benefit. Plus: discover how he’s working with world’s best chefs in raising awareness for the value of the environment by bringing nature to the table.
Evarist, having been involved in ecotourism for many years, do you remember what first got you interested?
I’m not sure when I began to feel that what I had been doing as a guide and as a company was ecotourism. It became clear to me when I met a group of small-scale entrepreneurs in Barcelona, and we wanted to bring to light our work in responsible tourism. There I realized that the tourism that interested me was called ecotourism: based on people who love natural resources and where the client takes an attitude of responsibility to sustain the place for future generations.
Today these debates are more necessary than ever, and it seems unfeasible to me that there would be tourism without this basic attitude if we’re talking about quality.
“Quality” is an overused word in tourism, but I think that it is also seldom applied in its most literal meaning. I work quite a lot as a trainer in Latin America and its use there often has little to do with its meaning.
How has your view on the potential of tourism as a facilitator of biodiversity conservation changed over the years?
Without having so much experience in this subject, I would say that tourism originated as a way to get to know the planet. Today it is more necessary than ever that tourism becomes an opportunity to get closer to nature and to the people that connect with it on a daily basis.
Humans live with more and more urban patterns and that means that we have lost, in many places, direct contact with nature’s actors that used to connect us to nature: farmers, fishers, shepherds, or others that work with the land and the sea.
Today that natural bridge is getting lost and leisure – which we call tourism – is the way that many of us interact with the most natural territory.
Connecting people first hand through interpretation allows us to enjoy, learn, and value what it is that gives us the most complete form of health – nature – and at the same time raising awareness of the consequences of our way of living.
In addition to your work as an award-winning tour guide, you also advise El Celler de Can Roca – one of the world’s best restaurants – in the use of edible, healthy plants. Are algae, fungi & co in haute cuisine becoming more popular now – perhaps moving on from ultra-processed food?
Without a doubt, the world of cooking has taken a turn in recent decades. We live in a globalized world and we have the luck of being able to choose among many styles of cuisine: from raw food to molecular gastronomy.
For all types of cuisine, the foundation should always be the use of local and natural products. In that sense, we are living a real revolution with regards to the inclusion of many ingredients from both the sea and the land – frequently forgotten.
In addition, modern cuisine should contribute to the awareness and sensitivity of our current environmental problems!
In my work with El Celler de Can Roca, we are also doing our part in making the connection between food and wild plants – today commercialized – that we have saved from being lost. As an example, 15% of the plants that we use are invasive: the second most serious problem affecting the planet’s diversity following climate change.
In 2018 the US World Food Travel Association recognized your company NaturalWalks as the second-best tour operator of food & wine tours. What is your secret to success – what makes your tours so popular and unique?
I think that we are constantly looking for quality and that is why we work with the ecotourism and Premium sectors, with very demanding clients.
Since the very beginning, we have understood that our activities should be unique, which means that they have to make sense in the place where they are being carried out. Furthermore, we have sought to be original and stay away from “what the market wants,” which I honestly continue to not understand.
I believe much more in offering activities that come out of their own desires – genuine activities beyond fashion and trend, and what the marketing dictates which will result in seeing the same thing in different places on the planet.
I believe that tourism continues to be based on principles from the twentieth century, where information prevailed and where places were shown without communicating their essence in a clear way and without a powerful and conscious activity behind every activity.
Like the Basque Country, Catalonia is well known among connoisseurs for its great cuisine, natural beauty and the entrepreneurial spirit of its people. In your view, how is it developing as a destination – is it on the right track or at risk of overcrowding?
I have always thought that the problems with tourism in many places are based in the facts that the same things are offered, they are done in the same way, and they are offered at the same time – without thinking about the planned consequences. Obviously, that can generate a disaster for the future of tourism and the planet.
Imagination is lacking in the creation of products that are usually based on what is in the land/territory rather than on a specific look at it – that is, transmitting a message or the essence of a specific aspect of the place.
We continue encouraging competition unconsciously because tourism today is not based on differentiating between what you know and what you feel like doing but rather on what the tourist is supposedly interested in, and I think nobody knows what that is.
On the other hand, quality is confused with quantity, and quality with high prices, which remains incorrect.
We need to attract and enhance a cultured, educated, and sensitive audience and that only happens by improving the standards of the product and the professionals who carry it out.
What makes a great tour guide?
There are three essential elements that we should consider:
One: the passion and love for the profession. That’s to say, it’s so important that the guides feel that they are part of a future profession, not a temporary job.
Two: we need educated guides, with education and values beyond transmitting a professional image. It’s impossible to be a great guide without being a good person who sets an example. Remember that there are guides who work 18 hours a day during travel weeks and that requires a very deep contact with customers.
Three: we need guides who want to constantly improve because this is a very demanding job. Guiding puts us to the test every minute because guiding, especially in natural environments, is the game of life: constantly learn and adapt.
Although not everything is the responsibility of the guides and for that reason, it’s important that they form part of the decision-making bodies: in public administrations, companies… which is not very common.
As coordinator of the postgraduate degree in ecotourism and nature guiding at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, do you witness a growing interest in the topic, among students?
Well, surprisingly, yes, quite a lot. At the start in the middle of the economic crisis, it was difficult, with students only essentially from our surrounding area. This year more than half of the students are from different places around the world: from China to Patagonia.
And increasingly more students with a lot of interest and from places with immense potential for the development of quality in ecotourism – like Colombia, Brazil, or Chile.
I think that ecotourism is going to keep growing every day, because there is a social demand from the public to be closer to nature and to do so in a more respectful and conscious way.
We need good professionals and for that, we also need good training.
Where do you see the link between the preservation of natural diversity and cultural identity, for example in Catalonia?
Throughout the world, local cultures are also an expression of physical diversity. Catalonia is a melting pot of the diversity of many people and cultures with whom we have lived and exchanged over centuries and continue to do so today.
We forget that strengthening minority cultures – especially ones with native languages – is a way of maintaining that necessary diversity.
In Catalonia, we have a great tradition of using wild ingredients, especially plants and fungi. Take, for example, a traditional liquor such as Ratafia – with more than 40 species of herbs – or how the same plants of the past are now used in high cuisine, it’s a way of showing the diversity of ecosystems, habitats, and species of a place and also how the locals have related with nature over centuries in many areas: as a source of health, spirituality, identification with the land, etc.
Tourism professionals sometimes avoid engaging with “sustainability”, since it is not something usually part of their KPIs. Reflecting on your own experience, which advice can you share with tour guides or tour operators in terms of how to deal with sustainability?
Today sustainability is no longer negotiable and those of us that work in nature know that first hand.
To be sustainable means taking into account how our actions impact the planet and other beings. I invite you to:
- Focus on the quality of services instead of quantity;
- Balance the number of clients per guide according to each place and each activity;
- Ensure the quality of guides by improving working conditions: fees, working hours, participation in decision-making;
- Create a midterm and long term strategy for the involvement of guiding services to grow your relationship with the company;
- Make sure that the profile of the guides corresponds to the profile of services and quality that you want to offer. Not everyone is meant to be a guide!
- Look for specialized certifications that guarantee the quality of your guides.
- Invest in selfless public actions that support sustainability.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
I would simply like to reinforce that in the world of tourism, it has been forgotten how vital guides are. They don’t often appear on stage in debates and they are an important element of the chain because in the end, they are the last and most important link in guaranteeing the quality of services.
Nature doesn’t lie, and those of us that work in it know that well. Humans are doing something wrong, and tourism can be a great opportunity to get closer to and learn from nature and, therefore, improve our quality of life.
Thank you, Evarist.
A long-time fan and friend of the Sustainability Leaders Project, Tessa Schreiner helped translate the interview from Spanish to English. Thank you!
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