Colin’s trip was a success on many levels, and he returned to the office with a sense of having engaged in some powerful team building with our guides in East and North Africa. He’s here today to tell us about his experiences.
Colin, when we wrote about your trip in our blog last month we called it “the best business trip ever.” From a personal point of view, what were the highlights of your travels in North and East Africa?
I definitely have to say that the new friends I made are my number one highlight. I was very lucky to join an amazing group of students from Colorado on their journeys in Tanzania and Kenya and the time we spent on Kilimanjaro together was absolutely unforgettable. It was very refreshing to be among travelers who are so actively learning about the places and people they're visiting and not just 'along for the ride'. I felt like I was back in school studying tourism all over again!
Of course meeting with our guide partners in each city I visited was equally amazing. From helping some of our newer guides learn more about how they can use ToursByLocals as a springboard for their entrepreneurship to working with our more established partners on much more difficult issues, like managing downward tourism trends: it was immensely satisfying to build and strengthen these partnerships and relationships.
How many ToursByLocals guides did you meet on this trip?
I met fully 20 members of the ToursByLocals team in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Egypt, and almost more! It's a bit difficult for everything to line up perfectly for everyone, but there's always next time!
I understand you held several group meetings while in Cairo, Nairobi, Arusha, and Addis Ababa. We communicate constantly with our guides around the world by phone and email: what was it like to meet face to face? And what was it like for the guides to meet each other?
Meeting face to face is just unbelievable. As hard as we try to really connect with our partners through Guide Support at our Vancouver office, we can be quite far removed from the day to day realities of each guide's life and of the guiding profession in any given area. That being said, the interactions we have by email, Skype, and through our social media do allow us to build quite strong relationships. To finally meet someone in person that you've been working with and sharing both good times and bad for years, it's like meeting a long-lost friend or family member. Pretty amazing stuff – enough to pluck a few heartstrings for sure.
Seeing our guides meet each other was really cool. Some already knew each other or had at least met in passing at the main guiding sites, but our meetings were a great way to bring everyone together purposefully and with the goal of generating a real 'team' spirit. I was astonished at how little I had to do to promote this idea, and to be honest was a little nervous that guides would see each other as competitors rather than colleagues. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I witnessed some very strong friendships being forged right in front of me as well as an overwhelming sense that our partners see each other as such, partners rather than a threat to one's own success.
Tourism has taken a sharp downturn in Egypt. Could you tell us a bit about the challenges our guides in Cairo are facing?
This is a major issue for our guides in Egypt. As you might expect, the ongoing political unrest in the country has had a very negative effect on the number of inbound travelers. If that was the only challenge, it wouldn't be so bad. However, the reality is that local Egyptian travel agencies essentially have a stranglehold on the entire workforce of professional guides. As the number of travelers decreases, agencies slash their prices and pass these cuts on to guides and drivers with lower and lower daily pay. With virtually nowhere else to turn, guides must accept the work at the expense of dignity.
I need to go a bit deeper here to explain that Egyptian guides aren't just history buffs that enjoy meeting travelers and taking them around the sites. These are professionals with Bachelors’ degrees, and in most cases Masters Degrees in Egyptology and who have undergone a rigorous program of study in order to be certified as Licensed National Guides. In Egypt, as a National Guide, you are actually forbidden to take on any other form of work, as guiding is seen by the government as a matter of national security. This means that if tourism takes a dive, all of these highly trained professionals are along for the ride. The fact that local agencies use this as an opportunity to cut wages is simply predatory in my view.
Has being a part of the ToursByLocals network helped their situation?
Yes. Because ToursByLocals offers a platform for independent guides to have total control of the tours they offer and the amount they earn. It's important to understand exactly what this means, because as many travelers have learned the hard way, being paid for delivering a tour isn't the only way a guide can earn their living. Horror stories abound from travelers who have gone on what they thought was a tour, only to be brought from shop to shop in a desperate attempt from the guide or driver to have the customer spend money at these retailers. Guides earn a commission from each of the sales and can supplement their paltry earnings with this. The pressure on Egyptian guides to earn more and more through these commissions and through tipping has increased at the same pace that wages have decreased. This increased pressure to shop, rather than really engage with the history, sites, and culture, has in turn had a detrimental effect on traveler experiences.
ToursByLocals offers an alternative to this downward spiral. Guides can earn an honest day's pay without compromising their dignity and without feeling the pressure to supplement their income by other means. This results in a better experience for the traveler because guides are able to focus on acting in their best interests, rather than scraping together a day's pay by going from shop to shop.
There is currently a travel advisory in effect for Egypt. What do you and our guides in Cairo think about this?
I understand why there is an advisory, but I couldn't be happier that I ignored it! Of course there are some places that are more dangerous than others and some times that are more dangerous to be in those places. These are reasons to hire a guide, not reasons to stay home! I had an amazing tour of Tahrir square and the very moving artwork that was being added to its surrounding walls even as I watched. I didn't feel unsafe for even one second. That being said, I would never have gone there without a guide and there were various times while in Cairo that my guides Moustafa and Sherine were warned by phone not to go near the square.
The truth is that tourist traffic at the main sites is at an all-time low and that traveling with a guide allows you to avoid any unpleasantness that can arise from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. At Dashour, I literally had the Red Pyramid and Bent Pyramid to myself. Words can't even describe how it feels to stand in the shadow of one of these giants with nothing but a desert wind to break the silence.