The Humble Tour Guide, Bridge to the Natural World

Tour guides play an important role in visitors’ interactions with the natural world. Harald Schaller, a graduate student at the University of Iceland studying geography, argues in a chapter in the book, Tour guides in nature-based tourism: Perceptions of nature and governance of protected areas, that the tour guide is a key stakeholder in protected areas.

Schaller shows in this chapter that tour guides not only translate, or help visitors find their path, but also shape visitors’ perception of nature. Furthermore, they guard fragile natural tourist sites, like glacial areas.

Tour guide using ice axe to make steps on glacier (source: Flcikt/Gregpoo)
Tour guide in Iceland using ice axe to make steps on glacier (credit: Flickr/Gregpoo)

“Tour guides are important in understanding the dynamics of the interaction of humans with nature and with each other,” Schaller wrote. Understanding the interaction between humans and nature helps decision-makers get insight into visitors’ perception of nature’s vulnerability and the way nature changes over time. For instance, tour guides working in many areas in Iceland areas have the opportunity to witness glacier retreat.  

Schaller provides insight into the position of tour guides in vulnerable tourist sites. He shows how they play a role in visitors’ perception of the environment, and concludes that  tour guides should be seen as stakeholders in the decision-making process of protecting vulnerable tourist areas.

His chapter begins with the author’s journey to Iceland, talking with local tour guides and exploring how other tour guides view the environment in which they are guiding the tourists. Tour guides have a long history. They are both pathfinders and mentors; they interpret information. The information they provide for people make their journey more safe and interesting. With the boom of tourism industry, the need for tour guides is also increasing.

The individual concept of the environment is often linked to someone’s personal background, such as culture, experience, and beliefs. Therefore tour guides’ personal background could affect the guiding service they provide.

Glacier hike from Skaftafell(Credit: Wikimedia)
Glacier hike on Skaftafell (Credit: Wikimedia)

According to World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), 2013, tourism creates one out of eleven jobs globally. The tourism industry in Iceland is expanding, so there is tremendous need for guides. However, in Iceland the quantity and stability of the labor supply is fluctuating, because many of the tour guides are migrants and seasonal workers. This poses risks for the sustainability of Iceland’s tourism industry, since the quality and consistency of guiding service suffers when there are not enough professional and experienced tour guides.

As the growth of tourism continues, the expanding number of visitors threaten the future of this nature-based tourist industry. “[P]eople are more concerned with ticking Iceland off their bucket list and with sharing more of their experience online, rather than caring for the delicate environment,” Schaller writes in his article.  In an email message to GlacierHub, he mentioned his concern for what he terms “the fragility of Icelandic environments.” He added, “Due to the increased visitation (beyond expectation for many), degradation of the natural environment happens. This, in turn, threatens the future of tourism, since the image of a wild and untouched environment is affected by this increase.”

Human cognition of the environment is not merely influenced by the physical existence of surroundings, such as lakes, mountains or animals, but also through their interaction with these natural surroundings. Schaller cites other sources who share this view. Lund (2013) and Ingold (2011) agreed that the environment is not a passive being. Instead, as one engages with the environment, it appears more clearly, and changes as physical interactions with it continue. So the natural environment could be seen as part of the personal experience within us as well as the objective existence of the environment.    

Vatnajokull Glacier, Iceland(Credit: Flickr)
Vatnajokull Glacier, Iceland (Credit: Flickr)

A person’s conception of an environment is shaped by the visitors’ own memories, values and cultural background before they even step foot on the ground. Thus, there are two forces intertwining with each other: nature shapes the experience of the visitors and their understanding of it, and the visitors’ prior experiences also influence their thoughts. This tangled relation shows that tour guides are key stakeholders in understanding how visitors’ perception of nature-based sites, such as glacial areas, shape visitors’ perceptions. Schaller’s work demonstrates the centality of these guides to research on glacier tourism and, more broadly, on environmental perceptions.

A number of images of glacier tours in Iceland are available here.

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