Just this week Monday night, we met Richard. Richard is the English version of his Polish name Ryszard. Polish born, he works for an Austrian company based in Beijing, China. Richard is in Sri Lanka for two weeks, on an assignment to set-up a water purification project. We were strangers having dinner at a hotel in the Deep South. He was seated at the adjacent table all alone and we got chatting.
He is not exactly a tourist, but had the profile of a full-fledged modern international traveller.
He had travelled from Colombo with a chauffer -driver- guide on the Ratnapura/ Palmedulla/Ambilipitya road. I asked him the question “How did you enjoy your trip out here?” He enthusiastically told me “It was lovely. Sri Lankans are very friendly. My driver stopped for us to have a golden coconut and that was delicious”. This is common, the friendliness of our people and the simple sensual pleasure of a roadside stop for a tambili, had taken the top spot in his mind.
I have always been impressed by the unique role played by a good tour guide in creating a visitor experience at a destination. That can be in a geographical area, a heritage site, a museum, a road side boutique, a wildlife safari park, or an exotic village fair and it can be anywhere in the world.
I recollect how several years ago, a specialist tour guide on a visit to the Louvre Museum, took me on and gave me his own version of exploring this marvel. The usual museum tour lasts just one and half hours and he took six hours. The passion he had for what he knew so well (held a Ph.D in Art and Archeology) and took so much pride in sharing it all with me, held me spell-bound. Believe it or not, he only charged me the usual fee that one would pay for the shorter tour. He even told me that I should come again the next day, for there was so much more he could share with me. To this day, he has a special place in my heart and mind and each time, I think of my visit to the Louvre, it is he, who comes top on my recall of that experience.
As I touched in an earlier column, there are bad practices that some are led into, in seeking undue commissions and that can indeed be a spoiler in ensuring the long-term good health of tourism in Sri Lanka. Yet, there are those who are the professionals and the exceptions. It is important that we give pride of place to the profession of tour guiding and ensure that they are all treated with due dignity and recognition. We must never forget that they form a most vital link in creating the uniqueness of the experience of a visitor to our land.
Encounters at the airport indeed are first impressions that are formed in a visitor’s mind of any destination. Wide awake, attentive and smiling immigration officers greeting them with an Ayubowan and a smile, at any hour, will make their day and help shape the rest of their Sri Lanka experience. They indeed are our goodwill ambassadors for tourism, and can do a lot to make or mar that experience. Then it is the tour guide, who makes the next point of contact. I thought it fit to present to you how a Sri Lankan tour guide himself explains his role in his own promotional webpage on the Internet of his or her role.
“As your professional guide and driver, your personal comfort and safety are of the greatest concern to me. I shall aim to ensure that your stay in the country is not only enjoyable, but also entirely safe and secure. I hold a full Official Tourist Guide’s Licence, issued by the Sri Lanka Tourist Board. This permits me to convey visitors to all regions of Sri Lanka. It is required by law that all professional guides are licensed, so that your safety and security can be guaranteed”.
We do have several types of authorised tourist guides forming the profession i.e. the National Tour Guide Lecturers, Chauffer Tour Guide Lecturers, Area Guides and Site Guides. While each has unique features that form their responsibility, they all contribute in varying degrees in the making of the experience. National Tour Guide lecturers have formed into a professional institute and work in close collaboration with the Chauffer Guide lecturers to improve their professional skills and knowledge through the conduct of workshops, lectures and other programmes.
I believe that the tour guides need to be given much more autonomy by the tour operators to enable them to be creative in presenting the Experience that is Sri Lanka. Without limiting them to specific activities, they should be given the freedom to take visitors to the village markets (polas), places of worship to observe events and rituals and to rural homes as appropriate, during festivities etc. Tour Guides on their part must grasp the opportunities, act with decorum and responsibility to optimise on them to present the best possible outcome of an Experience Sri Lanka for our visitors.
That indeed will help make the likes of Richard, our Beijing-based Polish-Austrian visitor better appreciate and enjoy our island’s nature, culture and adventure offer.
(Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and again from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at [email protected].)