Points of interest: Good tour guiding is a rare skill
Points of interest: Good tour guiding is a rare skill

Tour guides should cut to the chase and make it snappy

I never get bored when travelling, but boy, tour guides have taken me perilously close.

Mark Jones
Monday 27 April 2015 11:37
Comments

I'd like to start on a positive note, because things are going to get a lot grumpier further down.

I was recently in Tokyo, where I bumped into an old pal, Tyler Palma. Tyler is a guide for tour operator Inside Japan. You really need help when you go to Tokyo, especially for the first time, and Tyler is brilliant: knowledgeable about the politics and social trends of the place, as well as the history stuff. In his company you get to eat like a local and see things the tourists usually don't. You get current trends, current affairs, and current subjects of local gossip. I'd also like to big up The Real SF Tour, a high-energy, alternative walking tour of San Francisco. Those honourable exceptions aside, I'll be avoiding all kinds of guided tours for the foreseeable future.

The epiphany came in Salzburg last summer. I was offered a guided tour of the city and asked if I had any requests. I said: "No Mozart, cakes, or Sound of Music. Show me a different side of the place."

Sure enough, a lady showed up in traditional dress and showed me around some gardens where Julie Andrews sang. We went to Mozart's house and talked about cake (I didn't even get to eat one). At one point, she showed me the place where they plug in the leads so they can have live music outside in the summer.

I couldn't think of anything to say. Not that it matters. Guides are rarely interested in what you have to say, because they are too preoccupied with going through the 25,000 words of prepared script they have been delivering ever since they passed their guiding exams. What do you have to do to pass a guiding exam, I wonder? Prove you can carry an umbrella and herd reluctant people across busy roads? Memorise Wikipedia entries? Bore for your country?

I never get bored when travelling, but boy, tour guides have taken me perilously close. Travel and travellers have moved on. They do their research, they know all about the obvious places: your new generation wants unique experiences and surprising, original, tell-your-mates-down-the-pub stuff.

If I could add a module to the tour guides' exam, I'd call it this: editing. You shouldn't have to prove to the examiner that you have memorised every power outlet within a two-mile radius. You don't have to point out to the group that in your country we walk down the down escalator, not the up one (this happened to me recently, honest). Write your script, and then cut it by 75 per cent – 90 per cent if necessary. Select only the information that seems most likely to appeal.

The world needs editing. We are all taking too many pictures and absorbing too much information when we travel. The old, variously attributed apology for writing a long letter because you didn't have time to write a short one should be tattooed somewhere on every guide's person. Knowing your stuff means knowing what not to say.

Mark Jones is editorial director of British Airways 'High Life' and Best Western 'Do Not Disturb' magazines

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