Tour Guide Do’s and Don’ts for Cultural Sensitivity

July 2, 2019, Kyla Steeves
Cultural sensitivity for tour guides. Two Asian backpackers sitting on cliff taking pictures of ocean.

A tour guide can easily make or break an experience based on cultural sensitivity. When they embrace a group’s diversity, everyone feels welcome. On the flip side, miscommunication, impatience, or blatant intolerance often leads to unhappy guests — no matter how exciting a tour may be. 

Tour example of cultural sensitivity gone wrong

I know this all too well from a night jungle walk in Costa Rica. Although we spotted a tarantula and a couple of active snakes, our tour guide ended up being the scariest sight of the evening. His constant shouting frightened the group and probably the two-toed sloth we never saw. But the most horrifying part was how he treated my friend from Germany. 

Instead of talking about the creepy critters and nocturnal animals with good storytelling skills, each member of the group had to take turns reciting from a fact sheet. Already, this was a tedious way to present the information — not to mention it took us back to grade school and the anxiety of reading out loud.

For the native English-speakers, this wasn’t a big deal. But my friend felt uncomfortable the entire time and how the tour guide reacted made it worse. As she struggled with every word, the more frustrated he became. At one point, he even ripped the fact sheet out of her hands and said she couldn’t read anymore. 

Needless to say, we walked away wishing we hadn’t booked in the first place — which is something a tour operator hopes to never hear.

Why is cultural awareness important in the tourism industry?

When you work in the tourism industry, you encounter guests from all walks of life. It’s a perk because you get to learn about other cultures without traveling full-time. But with it comes the responsibility of respecting and adapting to cultural differences, social norms, and language barriers. Part of that starts with proper tour guide training. Why?

1. Tour guides interact face to face

Without a doubt, your tour guides spend the most time with guests. They take phone bookings, check-in arrivals, show them around and entertain, offer travel advice, handle complaints, answer questions, and so much more. There are countless opportunities for a tiny slip up, and one cultural faux-pas can turn into a negative review. 

If your tour guides know how to interact with guests appropriately — regardless of cultural background — you should have nothing to worry about. What does that look like? Check out our tips for effective intercultural communication below.

How to handle cultural differences in tourism. Group of travelers on sailboat.

2. Tour guides are brand ambassadors

Your logo isn’t the only face of your brand — your tour guides are too. Everything they do and say is a direct reflection of your tour company. When they make a fool of themselves, they also make a fool of your business. Put another way, if they offend a guest, it shows you condone that behaviour. 

To ensure your tour guides are on the same page, go over your mission statement and core values during the onboarding process, and as a refresher for team meetings. Let them know what you stand for as a tour company, and why their words and actions should always align.

3. Tour guides represent the destination

Chances are your guests will meet other locals during their trip who can offer a glimpse into the community and way of life. But for the most part, your tour guides give the best insight because of the lengthy interaction and in-depth conversation they have with them. 

So essentially, your tour guides act as the welcoming committee. By being culturally sensitive, they demonstrate a hospitable attitude on behalf of your destination — which can influence a guest’s overall perception of the people and place. If they get warm, fuzzy feelings, they might boast about it back home, and even consider living there one day.

4. Tour guides set an example for tourists

Kindness is a chain reaction. It only takes one person to show acceptance for many more to pay it forward. That is to say, a tour guide who takes the time to learn about another’s culture — their background, traditions, and customs — can inspire guests to have similar conversations outside of the tour.

But more so, when they treat everyone in the group with respect, there’s a better chance your guests will do the same and leave a positive social impact of tourism. Ultimately, that’s what travel is all about — making new connections and embracing cultures different from our own.

Tips for effective intercultural communication in tourism

Even if a tour guide claims to be worldly and knowledgeable, it’s easy to forget about cross cultural communication once they get into the routine of facts, stories, and jokes. So here is a cheat sheet they can use as a constant reminder:

Tips for effective intercultural communication. Two travelers standing in sunroof during road trip.

Do’s

  • Research before guests arrive: With Checkfront’s Guest Form, your tour guides can find out where guests are from and do a quick Google Search or use an app like CultureMee to see what cultural expectations they need to keep in mind. 
  • Speak slowly and deliberately: When using our native tongue, many of us tend to talk fast and mumble. But that makes it challenging for those who speak a different language to understand. So have your tour guides practice slowing it down and enunciating — public speaking is all about the delivery anyway.
  • Treat every guest equally: One place isn’t better than the next. Your tour guides shouldn’t pick and choose which guests to pay the most attention to based on their unique accents. 
  • Learn how to say their names: Dale Carnegie says, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” When your tour guides say a guest’s name correctly and use it in conversation, they make them feel valued. 
  • Respect physical boundaries: This should be standard practice anyways. Tour guides should never touch a guest — unless it’s offering a hand for an awkward step or helping with gear related to the tour. 
  • Show interest in where they’re from: The number one way to engage with guests is to ask them questions. Because most people love talking about where they live or grew up, your tour guides can start with that.  
  • Explain more than once: Not everyone is going to understand the first time. If someone asks for clarification, your tour guides should be more than willing to repeat something differently. 
  • Travel to unfamiliar places: The best way tour guides can learn about other cultures is to go out and explore themselves. Encourage them to travel in the off-season and visit places off the tourist trail.
Tour guide do's and don'ts. Three hikers taking a selfie in grasslands.

Don’ts

  • Use slang or idioms: Anyone who’s learning another language starts with the basics first. So there might be a little miscommunication if your tour guides drop in local lingo or even popular idioms like “speak of the devil” or “a penny for your thoughts.”
  • Get impatient with questions: There are no wrong questions. Even if someone asks something that seems like common sense, your tour guide should never make a guest feel bad about it because to them; it might not be. 
  • Stereotype nationalities: While some guests will laugh at what their country is known for, others might quickly get offended. That’s why it’s best to avoid poking fun at stereotypes altogether. Let your guests be self-deprecating if they want to instead. 
  • Discount the feelings of one: When everyone in the group is from one place, and there’s only one from somewhere else, that one guest should still receive the same attention and catering. 
  • Use offensive hand gestures: One secret to excellent public speaking is animation, but there’s a risk of giving someone the wrong signal. As such, your tour guides should become familiar with rude hand gestures from around the world and get out of the habit of using them.
  • Make inappropriate jokes: This might seem like a given, but a tour guide can easily cross the line once they build a rapport and get into banter with guests. They can still be funny with clean and family-friendly tour guide jokes
  • Expect a tip from everyone: In some countries, tipping isn’t customary for customer service. While you hope travelers brush up on the local etiquette before their trip, your tour guides shouldn’t hold it against them if a guest leaves without a monetary thank-you. 

Final thoughts

Handling cultural differences as a tour guide isn’t always easy — especially with everything else they have to juggle. But as long as they do their best, guests will notice and appreciate the effort.

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