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
- 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
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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