Green, Global, Great – those three words perfectly describe G-Guides, the international learning platform for modern tour guides. The school proved itself to be the pioneer in the field, training the first virtual experience creators in the world. The Academy was founded in 2010 by two passionate and dedicated professionals, Tina Hudnik and Maja Vanmierlo. Together they help students from all around the world to become skilled tourism professionals and the ambassadors of sustainable development. Elizaveta Ragozina interviewed Maja Vanmierlo to learn more about their work and find out who are the tour guides of the future.
ELIZAVETA: Maja, could you present yourself and tell a little about G-Guides?
MAJA: My journey as a tour guide started more than 15 years ago. I have always admired the role this profession plays in the travel industry. We are not only a link between destination and visitors, but we also educate about sustainability. I soon realized that many guides are not aware about this power of communication that we possess. To fill in the missing knowledge, me and Tina Hudnik, my co-founder, established G-Guides. It started out as a private research institute and later evolved into the G-Guides Academy, where we train our guides. We are based in Slovenia and Belgium, but most of our activities and training take place online all around the world.
One of our initiatives that we are very proud of is the Green Microphone Award. It is an award for the guides who make great contributions to sustainable development and responsible tourism. Tina introduced this idea to me a few years ago. She pointed out that most of the stakeholders in the industry have sustainability awards, except for the tour guides. That is something we wanted to change, thus the Award was created. The ceremony takes place every year on September 27, on World Tourism Day. 2020 was no exception, despite the fact that the pandemic has suspended the work of the travel industry. Many guides have worked hard to adjust to the new reality and continue to be the voice of responsible tourism.
ELIZAVETA: That is indeed a great way to acknowledge the work of tour guides. How does the process of getting the award go?
MAJA: People can either apply themselves or be nominated. If necessary, we help throughout the entire process. Participants need to tell or show how they support the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in their work. In doing so, we encourage them to use the Code of Conduct we have developed that is aligned with the UN SDGs. The document is our attempt to bring sustainability criteria to the tourist guiding profession.
Then, based on our criteria, we select the winners among all the participants. We try to choose someone who supports as many of the SDGs as possible or who really does something outstanding. After all, it’s not the number of tourists that matters, but what value and benefit one brings to their destination.
ELIZAVETA: How tour guides can contribute to sustainable tourism development?
MAJA: Guides can truly change the narrative from being a history teacher to becoming the voice of a destination. A guide is someone who can help tourists understand how to behave responsibly at the place they visit. For example, we have bicycle systems in many cities, but if tourists are not informed, they don’t use them. From my experience, people do care, but they just do not have all the necessary information to act in a responsible way.
When I was a guide in Slovenia, I often took tourists to local caves. Due to the fragile ecosystem of the caves, photography is prohibited inside. Since light is unnatural for the underworld, photography may trigger photosynthesis, which can destroy the environment. Guides usually just give a warning. But in my opinion the role of a guide is not just to prohibit tourists from taking pictures, but to explain the particular qualities of the place they visit. According to my observation, people behave responsibly if they are well informed.
ELIZAVETA: What is the situation with tour guiding during the pandemic?
MAJA: I am in Belgium now, but since we work with guides from all around the world, I have a good overall picture. The situation is not going well worldwide, regardless of the destination. The guides were really hit hard by the situation. They are struggling because they are rather unprepared to face this pandemic. The guides usually do not have a good amount of knowledge on how to transform an entire business quickly and efficiently. We are trying to support them at such times. For example, every Monday we have online talks. This is a kind of event where they can meet each other and discuss various topics. We want them to know that they are not alone.
In my work there are two things that keep me going on a daily basis. First, the awareness that we really do help tour guides in these turbulent times. Secondly, we help local communities via virtual tours as they all lack income from tourism at the moment. After all, we are talking not only about sightseeing, but also about online shopping, presenting local cultural heritage, creating meaningful connections and overall contributing to sustainable development. The money earned from virtual tours are later distributed among all the stakeholders. What we do is share the knowledge with tourist guides around the world, so they are able to support their own communities in these challenging times.
ELIZAVETA: What solutions do you suggest for tour guides? How can they run their business in times when people don’t travel?
MAJA: Already at the beginning of the pandemic, realizing that the whole situation could last for a very long time, Tina and I decided to create something that could help the guides get through these difficult times. This is how the course on virtual tours was born. There we share with our students on how to become a virtual experience creator and bring your business online. We can see that people who started with us in March already do such tours, offer online experiences and make some money from it. One should not expect fast results, progress takes time, but the sooner you plant the seeds, the sooner you can expect the harvest.
ELIZAVETA: What is the biggest challenge when it comes to virtual tours?
MAJA: The main challenge is to make people understand that virtual tourism is not going to disappear the same minute when tourists will be able to board the first plane. It is not something temporary that will last until a certain date, but rather a normal phenomenon that has become part of our daily lives. In today’s culture it is becoming more and more popular to use the “try before buy” approach. People would like to see their destination before going there, and they want to know who will guide them through their journey.
ELIZAVETA: Who is the tour guide of the future?
MAJA: I am often asked whether the tour guiding profession is dead. Personally, I don’t think so. The tour guides are here to stay. However, it’s true that they will need to change.
The guides of the future will be those with excellent communication- and virtual storytelling skills. It is misleading to think that someone who can tell a story in person will make a great virtual storyteller as well. It was proven wrong over and over again. I know of cases where excellent tour guides could not do their job well in the virtual environment.
In addition, intercultural communication is more important than ever because you are now more likely than before to have people from various places and backgrounds on your virtual tour. The guide should know of different cultures and be able to build bridges between them for fluent communication and get the message across.
Speaking of the future, we have to mention space tourism. It is becoming more and more popular. Some forms of it already exist, such as high altitude flights, zero gravity flights, and orbital trips. I strongly believe that in my lifetime I will witness the first tour guides going to space.
ELIZAVETA: G-Guides Academy was the first one in the world to offer a Space tour guides course. What do you teach there?
MAJA: It’s a special course, that is yet to gain popularity. Humans in general are driven to go to space. Though, the motive to do so can be very different for each individual. First of all, some people want to see Earth from space. But some want to experience zero gravity, and high speed. Some want to contribute to science. Altogether they want the whole experience. Thus, our goal is not only to give our guides the general information about space, but also teach them to create experience for space travellers based on the different motivations.
Future is already here. To adapt to it we need to change. However, the transformation might be hard. And that is why G-Guides exists. With our knowledge and experience we want to help those who are ready to start walking this amazing path.