HOW TO CHOOSE
AN ECOTOUR PROGRAM AND A HOST

Nowadays more than ever travelers must actively participate in choosing their trip facilitators. You can not judge how good programs or tour hosts are by how glamorous their magazine ads are, how famous their sponsoring agencies are, or by whether the guides are locally certified or accredited! Before a trip takes place, you should contact the tour host directly, ask probing questions, and see how your prospective host responds. Then judge for yourself how accommodating and trustworthy the host will likely be. Here is why:

  • Anyone can buy fancy ads in magazines, even if their service is terrible
  • Even famous agencies can employ bad or inexperienced guides; in general, the larger the agency, the more vulnerable it is to poor quality control
  • Certification and accreditation differs tremendously from place to place, and too often depends more on a host's willingness to pay local licensing fees than on the host actually knowing about the subject matter

EarthFoot's programs are specifically designed to address these problems. At this site, programs are represented exactly as the program hosts have designed them themselves, so from the very first you can judge the program host's ability to organize his or her thoughts about what can be done. You can judge the host's ability to communicate, and you can get a sense for how accommodating they are -- even whether they have a sense of humor or not!

Directly from the program-description page you can email the host to ask your questions. You may want to ask for more information about these matters:

  • What happens if the weather is horrendous?
  • What if you want more control over what and when you eat?
  • What if you are injured, either slightly or seriously?
  • What are the chances of being robbed at this destination?
  • Are your smoking and drinking habits compatible with the host's?

To give you an idea of what can happen when you don't take control of your own travel plans, here are some experiences related to us by EarthFoot host Denise Goodfellow, who operates birding tours in Australia.

  • An operator advertising birdwatching on his website was disconcerted to discover that a couple  who had bought a very expensive two-week trip were "avid birdwatchers", for neither he nor his guide knew much about birds.   The tour operator blamed the clients for not stating their level of interest. The clients denied this telling me that they attempted to impress upon their travel agent and the operator that birds were their primary interest.
  • A few years ago the local tourism association gave a visiting birdwatcher who wanted a birding guide the name of a local breeder of parrots!
  • A couple wanting a birdwatching trip were puzzled to find they had been booked by their agent on what was basically an adventure and sightseeing tour. At the same time their guide (me) had been told the couple had approved the trip. As contact between guide and couple was denied they couldn't sort the mess out until they actually got together.   When the clients decided to cancel the planned trip and go with the guide's suggestions they were refused reimbursement by the tour operator involved.
  • A tour operator running a birdwatching tour to Fogg Dam waved his hand over the floodplains on arrival and stated, "There are the birds!"  Unfortunately he couldn't identify them.  Other "bird tour" operators with little or no birdwatching experience do try  to identify species, from a bird book.
  • A man with virtually no background in botany (four hour's training) was employed to teach a class of trainee guides about native plants and the way that Aboriginal people use them.

Denise continues with these ideas for ensuring you get what you want:

  • If you just want someone to supply  vehicle, driver etc. and take you to some beautiful country then most operators are probably okay.  Just remember that neither accreditation (which concentrates on framework, not content), nor recommendation by tourism authorities or travel agents is necessarily a measure of how good the operator is.
  • If you are a birder/butterfly/ reptile enthusiast etc, consider doing your own research on the area you wish to visit --  bone up on the local species.  The internet makes this relatively easy. Then write to your travel agent, tour operator or guide of choice.  State your interests, level of expertise and any disabilities.   If the agent will not give you the contact details of your operator (or guide) then consider changing your agent.
  • Ask the operator/guide about his/her experience and level of expertise.  If you have any doubts ask about particular species of the fauna/flora in which you're particularly interested.   Some operators recognise that they do not have the relevant expertise, and ask specialists to fulfill their obligations to visitors.   However others with a similar lack of expertise may not tell you, and you may find this aspect of your trip disappointing.
  • If you are prepared to hire a guide outside of the formal tourism industry you will have a greater choice of expertise.
  • That being said, some birding guides race ahead of groups with just the keenest and fittest, often leaving the majority behind.  If you are not fit, or are just keen to see birds well rather than 'twitching',  then ask for assurances that the guide will accommodate you.   Other guides are not interested in anything but birds, for example.  If you have broader interests then let your guide know.

Finally, Denise advises us to be sensitive to a guide's inappropriate behavior:

  • Some guides catch snakes or lizards to show visitors.   However there is really no need to do this. Frill-necked lizards for instance can often be approached quietly, even with quite large groups of people.
  • Some drivers of tour boats have been known to ram crocodiles to 'give people a thrill'.   I first encountered such behaviour while guiding a group from the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, in the early 1990s when the driver they had hired from a big Northern Territory tour company rammed a crocodile at Yellow Waters in Kakadu National Park. When I complained I was told such behaviour was 'common practice'.
  • I've been made aware in the past of a few operator/guides who use inappropriate (ie racist or sexist) language, and a few who have behaved inappropriately.   Unfortunately the tourism industry is not known for weeding out such people. For instance one operator  actually sent overseas to promote Top End tourism had a history of threatening behaviour towards his wife and children, and in the end was forced off Aboriginal land.  There was no indication he ever behaved badly to clients, but he obviously had a problem with women, and so I decided not to refer any of my mostly women clients to him, just in case.

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