What is a Tour Guide? What types of tour guiding exist? Read along to find out how to start your journey as a tour guide.
What Is a Tour Guide?
English Baptist missionary turned businessman Thomas Cook is sometimes called “the father of tourism.” That’s because he and his travel company are largely credited with introducing the world to its first guided tours (and tour guides) back in the 18th century. However, around the same time, travelers in Japan could pay a guide to show them around its cultural capital of Kyoto. And before that, in the 17th-century Vatican, guides known as cicerones would lead tours around historical sites throughout the Mediterranean. In other words, being a tour guide has been a global profession for centuries, and its exact origins remain unclear.
Today, tour guides have come a long way. In 2021, travel and tourism contributed 10.3% to the global GDP (almost $9 trillion). Japan, Spain, and the U.S. were the top three leaders in the Travel and Development Tourist Index (TTDI) that year. This number decreased by half in 2020 due to the pandemic. But now the global tourism industry is once again booming, and there are currently an estimated 31,000 tour guides employed in the U.S. alone.
The job of a tourist guide today is as diverse as there are points of interest around the world. So there is no one clear definition of a professional tour guide either. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it simply as “a person who takes people on trips through an area and explains the interesting details about it.” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Different Types Of Tour Guiding Explained
Like the industry itself, tourist destinations and types of tours are ever-changing. Some tourist attractions are naturally more popular than others. But the places of interest and things people want to visit and learn about these days are countless.
Therefore, the kinds of tours and services tour operators provide vary and depend on a great number of factors. Still, there are some common experiences people are looking for wherever they travel. We’ve compiled a list of the most popular types of tour guide jobs out there today below.
City Tour Guide
City tour guides are a great way to get to know a city in a short amount of time. They’re common in most major cities of the world. City guides can show travelers an array of different things — from bars and restaurants to museums and shops to historical and cultural landmarks. So they tend to be locals who have a thorough knowledge of many different aspects of the city.
A travel agency will often arrange for city guides to meet travelers coming directly off of motor coaches, cruise ships, shuttle buses, and so on — and proceed to introduce them to the city. These excursions are often walking tours, but they can also be conducted by car, shuttle, boat, bus, etc. It all depends on the size and layout of the town. Biking and the use of scooters and segways are also an increasing trend for city tours these days.
Historical guides are one of the more traditional types of tour guide. Because no matter the size and popularity of a place, anywhere you go has its own unique history. These types of guides might show you things like ruins, excavation points, and archaeological sites. Or they may take you to the locales of famous battles and/or other cultural milestones that are significant for a town, city, country, or the world. National monuments and famous landmarks are commonplace in historical tours too.
Local tour guides and history buffs can have somewhat of an advantage in this field — they’re often able to answer the most inquisitive of questions that others can’t. Plus they can provide interesting little-known facts that you might not otherwise find in traditional history books or online.
Museum guides familiarize tour groups with the artistic and cultural heritage of a city. As opposed to a regular visit, a museum tour director and/or guide can ensure a more in-depth understanding of a museum’s art, artifacts, and background. And there are plenty of these dedicated professionals around the globe too, especially in city capitals.
According to UNESCO, the overall number of museums has more than tripled in the last half-century, and there are roughly 95,000 museums worldwide today. These include some atypical ones — such as Beijing’s Museum of Tap Water and the British Lawnmower Museum. Or the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum in Tennessee and Boston’s Museum of Bad Art (aka MOBA).
So while a general knowledge of art history and local culture helps, the qualifications to be a museum guide largely depend on the museum itself.
Park guides are people who conduct nature and sightseeing tours. They help explore state and national parks, nature reserves, and so on. In the U.S., they are usually employed by the National Park Service. Due to the level of responsibility, becoming a park guide may require a certain level of training and expertise.
The duties of a park guide vary depending on the location, the time of year, and the nature of the tour itself. But being one is a great way to get plenty of fresh air at work, as well as some great views. As a park guide you also meet fellow nature enthusiasts from around the world and avoid the hustle and bustle of the city.
Similarly to park guides, nature guides take tour groups to natural attractions where wildlife and scenic locations are the main focal points. Nature tourism is particularly popular with the millennial market these days, and it is therefore closely associated with ecotourism. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education.”
Nature guides also get to spend most of their day in the great outdoors, familiarizing their clients with beautiful exotic locations and their inhabitants. And they also help to preserve the environment. So, depending on the company, the tour manager, the specific location, and the local laws, being a nature guide may require a certain level of qualification and training too.
Adventure guides arguably have the most fun when it comes to the tourism industry. For example, they can be driver guides (aka a driver and tour guide in one) taking you on safari in Africa or mountaineering guides helping you climb Mt. Fuji. Adventure guides can take you canoeing along the Amazon, scuba diving in Thailand, trekking through the Sahara, or snowmobiling and dog sledding in Antarctica. The possibilities are endless.
But while every day can be a new adrenaline rush, an adventure guide is also responsible for the safety and well-being of all the tour members in their group. So in addition to knowing all the relevant information about their tour and terrain, adventure guides should also have a certain level of experience and skills when it comes to their particular sport or activity.
Depending on the activity, knowing how to properly maintain and use all the necessary equipment is often a requirement of the job. Moreover, impeccable communication skills, physical fitness, first aid training, and the ability to quickly and adequately respond to emergencies are all usually a must too.
With global tourism on the rise again, many tour guides are also choosing to be self-employed. For example, in Portugal, it’s not uncommon for a local tour guide to own a tuk-tuk and use it to give visitors individual private tours of the city. Freelance guides are usually not affiliated with any tour company, travel agency, museum, or municipality. All they really need is a certain degree of knowledge about their chosen area or field, plus an ability to clearly and effectively communicate that knowledge.
However, depending on the local laws and the type of tour, freelance guides may sometimes need to have some sort of certification or license too. And while these types of guides might miss out on things like health insurance and the steady work offered by companies, they do get to make their own hours. Plus they can customize their unique tours any way they want.
Freelance guides also tend to be a little more expensive than those found through tour companies. But a freelance guide might also provide you with an individualized, unforgettable experience different from those offered by traditional tour agencies and companies.
Tour Guiding Can be Rewarding
As a tour guide, you act as a sort of cultural ambassador to visitors and travelers. So good communication skills and an interest in culture and history are essential starting points for any of the above jobs.
The advantages of being a professional tour guide are countless. You get to learn more and more about your own area, culture, and history. You constantly meet people from all walks of life and backgrounds.
You have the chance to learn new languages and cultures. You can travel the world and take part in exciting and extraordinary activities, both indoors and out. And — most importantly — you provide people with unforgettable experiences and memories that can last a lifetime.
If you consider pursuing the tour guiding career path, we suggest you learn about the advantages and how a tour guide system works.