The tour guide industry may be down, but don’t count them out just yet.
Whether you’re hiring a local guide for a bespoke experience or booking a package with a tour operator, the travel guide industry is an essential part of how we experience the world. But for the last three months, the social distancing restrictions and shutdowns that have rippled across the globe—slowly at first, then all at once as countries from India to England to Argentina work to contain the infection—has ground travel to a halt. Tour guides and operators have had no choice but to temporarily suspend business.
While everyone in the travel industry is reeling, mom-and-pop tour operators and independent guides have been the hardest hit.
“It’s like a knock out during a boxing game,” explained Virgine De Paepe, co-owner with husband Josh Armel of the Painted Ladies Tour Company in San Francisco, California, which does tours of the Bay Area and nearby Wine Country in their beautifully restored vintage Volkswagen vans. “You didn’t really see it coming and then you’re picking yourself up off the floor.”
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The Pandemic’s Impact on the Tour Industry
The story is similar everywhere. Existing reservations canceled and no new bookings coming in.
“Our sales have basically fallen to about 2% of what they were last year. That’s a 98% decrease,” says Paul Melhus, founder of the global platform ToursByLocals, which connects travelers to knowledgeable local guides around the world. After over a decade of exponential annual growth, the company suddenly finds itself once again in “start-up” mode with no clients and no way to provide business for their local tour guide partners.
“You didn’t really see it coming and then you’re picking yourself up off the floor.”
Out in southeastern Utah, Wild Expeditions, an adventure outfitter that has been offering canyoneering, river rafting, and other expeditions since 2010, more than three months-worth of already reserved trips have disappeared—and the summer doesn’t look much better. The Bluff Dwellings Resort & Spa which founders Jared and Spring Berrett opened on March 6 now sits empty, not just of guests but of staff. The company has had to lay off all 50 of its employees, plus another 20 seasonal guides. “We were going to have our best year yet,” says Jared Berrett. “Literally within 20 days, everything has turned on its head.”
Across the world in Singapore, all visitors have been banned since March 22. But even before then, the city-state’s tourism industry was feeling the impact of the coronavirus since Singapore is an especially popular destination with travelers from China. Licensed tour guide Jane Goh, who founded her own travel agency Xperience Singapore a year-and-a-half ago, says that last March her company offered around 20-30 tours a month. Now it’s down to zero.
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But even while the owners and operators of tour companies are grappling with the debilitating challenges of stalled bookings and trip refunds, one of their primary concerns is how to provide for those they have depended on to help build their businesses. Though they’re facing around $80,000 in losses due to tour refunds, Armel and De Paepe of the Painted Ladies Tour Company have started a GoFundMe campaign to generate capital for the seven employees they laid off this month—their entire staff. In less than a week, former guests have donated more than $7,000 to the cause.
“I think the help we are getting from our community, it’s amazing and it’s great for our employees,” says Armel. Ultimately though, donations alone “will not be enough to sustain us.”
At Nomadic Expeditions, a luxury adventure travel company based in Mongolia and leading tours throughout Central Asia, they are resisting layoffs for as long as possible even though they’re unable to provide tours right now. So far, says the company’s president Undraa Buyannemekh, “we’ve been trying to keep our staff working on other projects, on improvements [at the award-winning Three Camel Lodge in the Gobi Desert], on improving our guest experiences and products and so on—but I’m not sure how long we can keep doing that. We have to take it month by month.”
The Next Steps for the Tour Guide Industry
The unprecedented halt in business has hit tour guides and operators hard, but they’re not giving up so easily. While mom-and-pop companies like Wild Expeditions and the Painted Ladies Tour Company have gone into survival mode in the hopes that they’ll be able to resume business as usual when the pandemic slows, larger operators are already planning for the future.
“Literally within 20 days, everything has turned on its head.”
In the past, ToursByLocals, whose mission is to provide private tours everywhere people travel, has faced some challenges recruiting local guides from less-visited destinations like Nuuk, Greenland. But “now that nobody is traveling anywhere,” says Melhus, “we’ve got their attention and we’re putting [new tours] out at a much higher rate than before.”
It’s a strategy he hopes will not just benefit the company and its local guides but will take some of the strain off of popular destinations that, before the pandemic, were suffering from overtourism.
“We’ve identified those smaller areas that aren’t heavily touristed but still have that kind of cultural impact that people are looking for,” says Melhus. Some of the new destinations include Lipari in Italy, Kisumu in Kenya, Pembroke Dock in Wales, Ashdod in Israel, Sumba Island in Indonesia, and Chios in Greece.
Nomadic Expeditions, too, has some exciting programs in the works including an upcoming tour this September along the Silk Road from Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan with National Geographic photographer Alison Wright. The industry pause has allowed them to improve existing itineraries and design new ones, especially for family travel (which, before the coronavirus, was Nomadic Expedition’s fastest-growing sector).
The company, which has a big focus on sustainability, is also using this time to sponsor conservation initiatives aimed at supporting two Central Asian animal species, the golden eagle and the snow leopard. Their Three Camel Lodge is launching a program to breed the indigenous Mongolian Bankhar dog, an endangered mastiff-like breed traditionally used to guard herds of livestock, to give to local families. “Overall, the travelers seem to be so understanding and almost cheering you on in saying ‘hang in there’ and ‘we’re going to wait and go when the time is right,’” says Buyannemekh.
Though no one can predict just when that time will again be right—when restrictions begin to relax and people start to slowly dip their toe back into the travel industry—tour guides and operators big and small will be ready.
“We love to travel and we seek out these unique experiences and it really makes our trip. Companies like us really do make a difference in people’s lives,” says De Paepe.