In October 2019, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Alex Brylske, founder and president of Ocean Education International, for an article about best practices for tour operators offering marine activities. Knowing very little about the topic, my questions were intended to draw out action items for tour operators working in marine environments. In shaping this article in my head prior to our conversation, I knew that I wanted to leave readers with something they could implement in their business practices right away. Brylske, a seasoned educator, was patient with my questions, but challenged me to think beyond action items — and to think beyond the boat.
As I re-listened to our interview and began putting together this particular article, a few key pieces of insight stood out to me.
First, marine environments don’t end at the water’s edge. They also include coastal communities and the people who live in them. Marine environments — like any kind of environment — are fluid and complicated ecosystems. Working within them requires listening to and learning from Indigenous wisdom and current residents. It also requires supporting and participating in local research and initiatives. These coastal communities provide important cultural and historical context.
When interacting with travelers, Brylske pointed out tour operators need to explain and emphasize the landscape’s holistic nature. Just as the marine environment itself doesn’t end at the water’s edge, no single water-based plant or animal exists in isolation. It is part of a much bigger and complex ecosystem. Guides working in these environments, in particular, are well versed in the intricacies of how marine life is integrated into this larger circle of life. Yet, many don’t take advantage of the opportunity to connect their in-depth knowledge and experience with the questions and curiosity surfaced by a captive audience of travelers.
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In the published article, I wrote that “in a pleasant, recreational environment, any question is an opportunity to explain ecological concepts, what problems exist in marine ecosystems, and what travelers can do to address them.” Guides can answer a simple question about a particular fish or type of coral with a simple answer. Or, they can go one step further and offer additional context about the greater marine ecosystem, opening the door for important conversations related to biodiversity challenges, conservation efforts, and climate change.
For me, this was the clincher of the conversation: “The guide is a critical link in making sure clients not only enjoy the experience and feel safe but they are connected,” Brylske said. “By making that connection and taking a half step more, you can actually turn their interest into advocacy. … This creates stewards out of people who go back home and do something about what they’ve experienced.”
The New Era of Tourism
The tourism industry is on the brink of a new era — one in which it can no longer deny that the climate crisis is a key component in how offerings are created, packaged, communicated, and delivered to travelers. After decades of operating as if the climate was some other industry’s problem to solve, the tourism industry is forced to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Not only does tourism operate in a world that is facing a dire climate emergency, but it also contributes to the climate crisis, especially when people fly. While the tourism industry is still reeling from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it must also grapple with the reality brought on by climate change.
Regardless of what the “new” industry looks like coming out of the pandemic, the role tour guides and service providers play in travel experiences is of the utmost importance in representing the natural and cultural environments in which they work. In fact, not only will they be charged with ensuring travelers enjoy their holidays safely, but they’ll need to do this against a backdrop defined by a rapidly changing natural landscape and the ripple effects of severe weather caused by the climate crisis.
People are not ignorant to this reality: 64% of the world’s population believe climate change is a global emergency. Continuing to offer travel experiences as if this isn’t the current state of affairs is foolishly ignorant at best and downright disingenuous and dangerous at its worst.
Tour Guides as Environmental Ambassadors
Every professional and every role in the tourism industry must consider the climate crisis. From itinerary development and supplier relationships to marketing and finances, carbon reduction and climate impact are never far from mind.
But when it comes to interacting with travelers face-to-face, it’s tour guides who are the true environmental stewards, frontline ambassadors, and climate action changemakers in the tourism industry.
Living Local with a Global Reach
Tour guides stand in a privileged spot in the tourism supply chain. They are locals living in the places in which outsiders are eager to spend time. They speak the local language and know the local slang. They are familiar with recent news events, environmental issues, and cultural traditions. They’ve seen how the destination has been impacted by climate change over the years — for better or for worse.
In the tourism context, tour guides are the conduit through which travelers experience and interpret a destination. Without context of a destination, travelers’ frame of reference is built on the stories tour guides tell (and the way they tell those stories), the reactions they show, the interactions they have, and the care and compassion they demonstrate for a destination.
So while they are very much “local,” tour guides’ stories and interactions frame the way global travelers interpret their experiences.
Regardless of whether guides offer single- or multiple-day tours, they have the capacity to establish deep rapport with travelers. Travelers put their trust in guides. They’ve paid for this experience and trust guides to be knowledgeable. For their part, local tour guides have a vested interest in telling stories honestly and from the heart. This gives them credibility.
This is one of the reasons tour guides should be encouraged to go “off script” and share stories from their own personal perspective. They have fond memories of hiking with their scouting troops on the same trekking paths where they guide their clients, for example. But, they can also tell when the countryside hasn’t received enough rain, when the mountain lakes have become polluted, and how much tree cover has vanished as a result of wildfires.
This deep and intimate knowledge about the local landscape and people provides important, ongoing context for travelers. And over the course of many days (or even a couple hours) spent together, service providers develop a level of rapport that no one else on the trip can offer. Sharing time and swapping stories — and engaging with travelers by asking them about their related personal experiences tied to climate change — is a catalyst for ongoing behavior change on behalf of travelers.
These seemingly insignificant moments offer a perspective that is powerful in helping travelers shape the narrative they’ll take home with them.
An Exercise in Anticipation
One of the key features of impactful storytelling is intentionality. Going back to Brylske’s example of marine environments, every dive instructor knows that, in marine environments, travelers inevitably ask about fish identification. It’s up to guides to anticipate those questions and then take the opportunity to share additional information that offers important context.
The climate crisis is woven into all aspects of our ecosystem. Tour guides know when and how to bring these topics into conversations in natural, engaging ways that can help people shape their understanding and change their perspectives. They just need to be intentional with their communication to highlight climate-related issues. For companies like Carbon EcoTrip that build climate action into their itineraries, these conversations surface more naturally.
But guides on every trip can anticipate how experiences will unfold. They need to use travelers’ questions to nudge that door of curiosity open. Provide answers, but also provide additional relevant context and information.
These are the moments when fun experiences can lead to behavior change. These are the opportunities when passive travelers become engaged global citizens concerned with the climate crisis. And this is when tourism evolves from a source of destruction to a vehicle supporting meaningful and positive climate action.
The Final Link in the Narrative
Before travelers ever leave home, they are inundated with huge amounts of messaging in the form of social media posts, web content, and pre-trip literature. If any of this communication is about how your company or destination is committed to carbon reduction, sustainability, or other climate actions, that begins to shape a story for travelers. It primes their expectations about what they can anticipate seeing and experiencing once they’ve arrived on the ground for a tour.
Here’s the kicker: Does the story travelers receive during the customer journey carry over into the traveler journey? It should. Otherwise, what you mean to communicate and what is actually interpreted by travelers may cause friction and call your sustainability story into question.
Tour guides are the final link of that narrative. What they say and emphasize — or what they don’t say at all — reinforces the story you intend to share. It is promising to see tour companies like Global Family Travels intentionally create trips that address the climate crisis. These experiences are specifically designed to highlight how a warming planet impacts every aspect of the destinations people want to visit, and travelers signing up for these trips expect to have conversations about the climate crisis.
But even companies that don’t build in this intentionality should consider what message travelers are left with when they finish a tour. Have they blissfully wandered through a destination free from the climate challenges the world faces? Or have they been trusted to hold the complexity of appreciating a place while also grappling with the impact the climate crisis has on it?
This is Reality
Climate change is not a passing fad. As people wake up to the deep injustices exacerbated by a warming planet, the tourism industry has no choice but to acknowledge the same. Tour guides are the key people in this sprawling ecosystem who can unlock tourism’s full potential in addressing this challenge head on.
With a thoughtfully designed itinerary, rapport built with travelers, and a willingness to engage about complicated issues, local tour guides serve as the essential link between a destination’s natural and cultural context and the story travelers will remember, share, and act upon once they return home.