A guide can make or break a holiday. Mark MacKenzie reports on a scheme to reward the best

A good tour guide can turn a day's holiday excursion into the experience of a lifetime. A bad one can have you enquiring about the next flight home. Whether illuminating some dark corner of a medieval tapestry or recounting the mating habits of Africa's lilac-breasted roller, a competent, well-informed tour leader has the ability to both entertain and inspire.

Last week, the specialist travel magazine Wanderlust held an awards ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society in London to celebrate excellence in the guiding arena. The winners of the inaugural Paul Morrison Guide Award, named in honour of the magazine's late founder, were picked from a shortlist of 70 guides from around the world.

Nominated by readers, they represented a range of destinations and specialisations. The final result was a dead heat between one KC Bhuwan, a trekking guide based in the Annapurna region of Nepal, and Manda Chisanga, a safari guide from Zambia. Third place went to Martin Gray, a naturalist who offers tours of Antarctica and South Georgia.

There are, of course, as many types of guides as there are destinations to visit but, according to Lyn Hughes, Wanderlust's editor and a member of the judging panel, the basic attributes are broadly the same. "Local knowledge and communication are obviously key skills," says Hughes, "but what separates the great guides from the merely good ones is the ability to empathise, to understand when clients are tired or suffering from information overload. A lot of travel companies are simply happy with someone who speaks English."

Specialist guides, at least those in the developed world, tend to be certified by the appropriate governing bodies. But in those parts of the world where such organisations don't exist, Hughes believes consumers should trust to word-of-mouth: "A well-guided trek can be life-affirming, so word soon gets round."

Guiding in the UK is a well-regulated industry. Among the most highly qualified are the 1,500 Blue Badge guides operating under the Association of Professional Tourist Guides (APTG). "Our guides need to be informative and aware," says the APTG's Anna McKeown. "Getting 50 people to pay attention around Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle is quite a skill."

Not paying attention to your guide can, in certain circumstances, have grave consequences. When you're on a safari, for example, it pays to pay attention. "Bush guides are supposed to be rigorously assessed but that's often not the reality," says Grant Hine, managing director of the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA), a leading trainer of safari guides in sub-Saharan Africa. "FGASA guides train for up to one year, from geology to astronomy and everything in between. A well-qualified guide must be able to multi-task, particularly in an emergency."

In the search for some sort of international guiding consensus, FGASA is in the process of creating its own version of the Blue Badge, a qualification designed to marry bushcraft to expertise in local history and culture.

Hughes hopes the Wanderlust award will one day be recognised as a form of global standard, with shortlisted guides permitted to wear a specially designed logo, the guiding equivalent to a Michelin star.

And what of that perennial question: should you tip your guide and, if so, how much? "In less developed countries guides are very badly paid," says Hughes. "You should always tip but a great thing to do is leave behind unwanted items. When you go trekking in Nepal some of the porters haven't even got shoes. If you have a waterproof jacket you know you're not going to use again, it seems a shame to take it home and just put it in a cupboard."

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