Tour guides are often overlooked in the discussion about how we can promote and ensure a more sustainable tourism industry and responsible tourism practices. Maja Vanmierlo of G-Guides in Slovenia is on a mission to change this. In this interview, she tells us why tourist guides are such an important part of the sustainable tourism “puzzle” and what is holding them back from living up to their full potential.
Maja also reflects on the state of sustainability in Slovenia and the need to match destination brand promises with the development and management of the actual tourism products and experiences that visitors will encounter.
Our interview with Maja Vanmierlo is part of a special series with Slovenian sustainable tourism change-makers, supported by the Slovenian Tourist Board.
Maja, having been involved in tourism for over a decade now, do you remember what first got you interested? And has your view on tourism changed over the years?
I always wanted to see as many parts of this world as possible and meet different people and cultures. But this was not enough for me. I wanted to show these places and connect people from different cultures. And I could best bring this idea to life by being a tour guide and tour director.
My view on tourism hasn’t changed that much over these years. For me, it was always about immersing myself in other cultures.
Being in contact with tourists and travelers every day since more than 15 years, I see that people are no longer in search of sightseeing, but rather in search of experiences.
So, I would say that what first brought me to tourism is what is now motivating more and more tourists to travel.
You are the co-founder of G Guides – in a nutshell, what is it about?
G-Guides is a private school for tourist guides and a private research institute, where we strive to bring to life academic and governmental as well as international efforts to move towards more sustainable development and responsible tourism.
We are achieving this first through our research contributions, and second through education and training for different stakeholders in tourism, especially tour guides and tour directors. Our third pillar is events and conference contributions, where we try to raise awareness about the importance and role that tour guides have in the whole journey towards more sustainable development and responsible tourism.
You would be surprised how underestimated and overlooked this profession is by other stakeholders in tourism, due to a lack of knowledge about the profession. Consequently, the communication power that tour guides possess is not used effectively. This is a big opportunity missed by destinations to communicate sustainable tourism efforts and to bring tourists onboard.
What motivated you to establish the G-Guides School for tour guides?
Like most purpose-driven companies, the main motivation was and is to change something that is unacceptable.
Firstly, I never understood why there is no mandatory training in Slovenia to obtain the national license for tour guides. When I started to explore this issue more in-depth, I learned that training and education all around the world don’t prepare tourist guides for the role(s) they will have in the tourism industry.
The most disturbing, painful and unacceptable fact for me was that most of the training still promote an idea of tour guides being mostly about knowing historical facts and such, not taking into account that we can easily find most data online now.
I was (and still am) determined to change this with G-Guides. This was proven right as we were chosen by the EU Commission for the promotion of the profession in all EU countries, and our work was recognized by the UNWTO as a contribution to sustainable tourism and the SDG [sustainable development goals].
Ljubljana has done some impressive work over the past years in making the city more environmentally friendly and livable. What role do tour guides play in the responsible tourism context?
Tour guides play a bigger role in the responsible tourism context than most of the stakeholders in tourism understand. They are sustainability communicators, promoters of responsible tourism, accelerators of local economic development, as well as cultural brokers.
But they need to get this knowledge during their training. You cannot expect guides to provide five-star service, to communicate the values of the destination and sustainability and to properly communicate across cultures if they are not trained for this.
Tourist guides who have had proper training and are thus prepared for the role they will have as a main link between the visitors and destination can be the most valuable part of the whole marketing mix of the destination.
No successful brand would invest resources into development, marketing and branding, but then not care about the point of sale, where the product meets the (potential) customer. And yet, this is exactly what is happening in tourism at a destination level.
With the “Green Microphone Award,” you seek to reward and recognize tour guides who are going the extra mile for promoting responsible tourism through their work. How has your experience been so far, and how does the award process work?
Green Microphone-voice of responsible tourism is the award we give annually to the guide who has done the most to bring responsible tourism into practice. This was a brilliant idea of G-Guides co-founder Tina Hudnik, who could not stand the fact that there is an award for responsibility and sustainability for just about every segment of the tourism industry – except for tourist guides. So she thought: hey, why don’t we start giving one. So, we decided to start with Green Microphone.
2018 was the first year of the award and we are positively surprised and honoured to have had tour guides from almost all continents participate – and to gain media support from the Ethical Travel Portal.
Tour guides can be nominated by somebody or can submit their own application online. Also, our final ceremony and the last part of the competition is 100% online. We want to minimize the carbon footprint of our event.
Your thoughts on the current state of tourism sustainability in Slovenia as a destination?
Many people in Slovenia have done an amazing job in the field of tourism in the last few years. I am very proud every time I see Slovenia on the list of top ten green, clean, safe, sustainable and must-visit destinations. At the same time, I am also very afraid.
There is one crucial mistake that many brands and destinations have done before: over-promise and under-deliver. It is indeed very flattering to be on all those lists, but this alone does not bring sustainable tourism into life. Today’s tourists are very much aware of what is and what is not responsible for tourism and sustainable development, so we should by no means underestimate the knowledge and awareness of our guests. It can backfire easily.
Because sustainability seems to be a must-use word now in Slovenian tourism, there is a big potential danger of greenwashing.
How do Airbnb Experiences and other portals affect the traditional tour guiding business – and which other trends or challenges are you facing right now?
I am very happy you are asking this question. From my point of view, there was never a better time for being a tour guide than now. With the right set of knowledge, skills and basic use of modern technology you can have a thriving, purpose-driven, lifestyle business, where you can contribute to intercultural exchange and accelerate responsible tourism every day.
However, there are two main challenges in our profession at the moment. First, how to prove the positive impacts and benefits of tourist guides in terms of sustainable tourism and local economic development – and this is what I am addressing right now as part of my master studies at Leeds Beckett University in the UK.
The second challenge: how to persuade traditional tourist guides that they need to gain a whole new set of skills for the new century, in order to improve the reputation of our profession and to provide five-star services for visitors.
What does it take to become a good tour guide?
There is no single answer to this question because there is no single type of tourist. And this is what I am trying to tell first to tour guides and then also to the visitors. Today, the market is so segmented, that different target groups need different approaches.
That said, I would point out two skills that every single guide needs. Communication competence and cultural intelligence. This is far from just being able to tell a good story. A good guide will be able to communicate the same story to a wide variety of audiences, according to their knowledge, interests and cultural background. And this is not easy. And very few guides actually have these skills. Just think of telling the same joke to different age groups, in different languages to an audience with different cultural backgrounds. It doesn’t work.
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?
True, but I think it is because they do not have sufficient knowledge about what this is and how should they implement it to the core of their business. A worse case would be when they lack the knowledge but feel that they need to engage somehow and then engage in the wrong way.
My advice is very simple: talk to somebody who has the knowledge. Despite sustainability being a well-known term in academia, it is still relatively new to tourism businesses in practice.
Guides and tour operators can do so much to make responsible tourism mainstream, but they need to put sustainability in the focus of their product design. And this needs to go far beyond avoiding plastic bottles and straws, which are the absolute buzzword now in tourism.
On the other hand, many businesses are doing a great job, but do not know how to communicate what they are doing to their audience.
Thank you, Maja.
Curious to learn more about Slovenian sustainable tourism leaders and change-makers? Overview of all interviews here.