PROFESSIONAL TOURIST GUIDING: THE IMPORTANCE OF INTERPRETATION FOR TOURIST EXPERIENCES
In today’s international tourism it may happen that, without the role of mediators, existing destination resources remain either unavailable to visitors or not properly understood and valued by them. Interpretation of the local heritage, living culture, values and cultural identity in general is the key component of the contemporary guide’s role. Tourist guides are front-line professionals who, unlike any other tourism players establish a close, intense and influencing contact with visitors at the same time protecting interests of sustainable tourism.
They are often called “tourism ambassadors“ of their destinations. Nevertheless, their profession is commonly perceived as an ancillary, repetitive and mass tourism activity, although it can be a very effective tool in the construction of tourist experiences.
Key words: Tourist guiding; Guided tour; Tourist experience, Interpretation.
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Contemporary tourist guiding has a complex and multifaceted role consisting of various separate roles and sub-roles. Zhang and Chow (2004) have noticed sixteen, whereas Black and Weiler (2005) ten different roles ascribed to guides in academic literature. Separate sub-roles indicate that the tourist guide’s role includes several components – instrumental, interactive, social and communicative, some being externally oriented (the tour as a form of tourist guiding operation) and other internally (tourist experience of the tour participants; Cohen, 1985).
Recently, another two roles of guides related to ecotourism have been detected: the externally oriented role of motivator (encouraging environmentally responsible tourist behaviour) and the internally oriented role of interpreter of natural resources (Weiler; Davis, 1993). The contemporary role of tourist guiding can be regarded as a result of historical evolution of the profession existing for 2.500 years: whereas in the past, tourist guiding was related to escorting visitors through an unknown area (the ”pathfinder” role).
It has gradually acquired a form of cultural mediation, i.e. explaining cultural differences of the environment visitors have been in contact with. This is why McGrath1 distinguishes the roles of ”original guide“, ”guide-teacher” and ”guide-interpreter”. The relapse of the original pathfinder role has not entirely vanished, being dominant today in the work of specialized guides, such as the guides of adventurous and ”adrenaline” tours.
Guiding facilitates physical or cognitive access to attractions, especially when they are relatively dislocated, unmarked by tourist signalization, if their regular activities are not done within tourism industry or, instead, accessible solely in the form of guided tours. ”Assistance in accessibility” can also have the control effect. For instance, when it is necessary to limit the number of visitors to the attraction or if it is highly important to follow the etiquette on the spot (responsible behaviour).
Even with the attractions opened for everyone, the guide makes a visit easier in the case of congestions by providing his or her group with faster and in the same time more comfortable access. Another important aspect of the guide’s role is to inform tourists, which is a cognitive form of mediation. Almost all researchers, e.g. Holloway (1981) or Pond (1993) imply that tourist guides are primarily information providers being particularly important at the beginning of tourists’ stay at a destination.
This stance is also supported by empirical research (for example: Rabotić, 2009), since domicile guides, as well as the surveyed foreign tourists, emphasize the role of information giver as crucial in tourist guiding. The interest of a destination is to disseminate quality information, enabling tourists to feel secure and at ease, taking up tourist activities they had not previously planned, i.e. staying longer and consuming more.
The quality of guides in the role of information provider depends on them as individuals, their personal education and expertise. In that sense, there are conspicuous differences among guides, which are even more increased by legal provisions in many countries (for example: in Croatia or Serbia) where candidates who apply for guide licenses and take exams, must complete secondary school education, i.e. relatively low educational level.
On the other hand, tourists are becoming more and more informed, educated and demanding; which is why it may happen in practice that even extremely educated tourists are escorted by significantly less educated individuals, which must reflect on the clients’ satisfaction, their perceptions about professionalism in tourist guiding, as well as their impression of particular destinations.
GUIDED TOUR AS A TOURIST EXPERIENCE
In tourism, the aim of travelling for each participant is the realization of wanted and expected experience. Thus, travelling is a means, an “event“, attractive as such, since as opposed to daily life, it offers a new, extraordinary, different, and therefore “exciting“ situation.
Čomić (1990) well noticed the differences between the notions of tourist event and experience. He emphasized that the event could be a “preparation for travelling, travelling itself, staying at a destination, departure, as well as other various pleasant or unpleasant events within one big event that makes up travelling – a new acquaintance, love affair, cruising down the Nile, visiting the Louvre, but also lost luggage, delay or airplane hijacking, fire outbreak in a hotel etc.“ (1990:66).
According to the author, psychologically speaking, the experience is by far more important, as a psychological reflection and reaction, rather than the event itself. Various events connected with travelling of various tourists cause different experiences: satisfaction, dissatisfaction, fear, joy, admiration, ecstasy, boredom etc. Travelling for pleasure is based on freedom of will as a moral norm, thus is natural that pleasant emotions are spurred during such travelling – excitement, delight, enjoyment etc.
The experience is an inward state of an individual, triggered by phenomena a person met, endured and experienced. Tourist experience is such a state, caused during travelling, especially during sightseeing or vacation. The main social and psychological problem in researching tourist experience is its diverse quality as well as attitude towards everyday life (Cohen, in: Jafari, 2000).
Another dilemma is whether tourist experience only provokes a sum of positive and negative emotions in a tourist caused by certain events during travelling or a new satisfaction quality, i.e. feeling which regenerates individuals both physically and mentally. 2 In any case, tourist experience is individual and personal, which is why (as in the case of tourists) it is impossible to be described in general.
If it is true that individual tourist experiences “are constructed as a result of interaction between tourists, host communities and residents, tourism providers, government bodies, and environmental settings” (Jennings, 2006:14), where each of all the elements has its cultural and temporal context, then achieving positive tourist experience at a destination is facilitated owing to the mediator’s role of tourist guiding.
Furthermore, the authors such as Weiler and Ham (2002:54), see guides as “providers of tourist experiences.”
The experience offered by a guided tour includes a tourist guide, participants (tourists) and environment (setting) and it may occur when all three actions interact in the same point of time and space, simultaneously sharing the identical focus, i.e. the same travelling during certain period of time. It is an occasion to establish various relationships between audience and setting, the guide and audience, the guide and setting and all three parties, respectively. “Guides should manage these relationships with the aim of ensuring a positive experience for the visitor, a sustainable experience for the environment and a rewarding experience for themselves“ (Pastorelli, 2003:3).
Two aspects of guiding are particularly influential on the tour experience: presentation (commentary) and managing group dynamics. The quality of commentary should be a combination of informative and entertainment contents, adapted to the clients’ interests and presented enthusiastically, encouraging guide-tourist interaction, as well as the interaction within a tourist group. Empirical research (for example: McDonnell, 2001; Rabotić, 2009) shows that the guided tour participants are interested
Mossberg (2007:63) quotes authors Quan and Wang who pointed out two approaches in researching tourist experience: one in humanities and another in the fields of marketing and management. In the first case, tourist experience is seen as a contrast in relation to daily experience or, instead, as their absolute opposite (peak experience), whereas experience caused by extending daily life on the account of travelling for pleasure (accommodation, meals, transportation) is mostly ignored.
A different approach is offered by references in marketing and management, where tourists are seen as consumers involved in various commercial transactions (all service types), regardless of having top-quality experience: here, the focus is onsupporting consumer experience which can be explored through tourist reception on quality service before, during and after travelling. The quoted authors are of the opinion that both dimensions (top-quality tourist experience and occasional tourist experience) make an organic whole, even though they are conceptually different.
Both types of experience affect one another, thus creating the entire quality of tourism experience. in the daily life of a destination as well as the tradition of local community, apart from its history or particular attractions. If the stay is brief and a local tour the only link with the destination (as in the case of cruises), it is natural for the participants to express the need for diverse content of guide’s commentaries.
Responsibility for the group and relationship among its members, tourists also see as an important function of a tourist guide. Successful management of group dynamics may represent the guarantee for achieving certain degree of satisfaction among the tour participants (Quiroga, 1990).
Apprehending the experience as something which the tour participant personally achieves, endures and is influenced by, Arsenault and Gale (2004) point out that the experience can be based on observation or participation, it can be passive, planned or opportunistic, personal or shared with others.
The authors have noticed several types of experiences characterized by the increasing demand and supply: “entrance“ to local communities; participating and interactive activities; special access to the backstage area and exclusiveness; learning and “discovering“ as well as shared experiences.
Stambolović (1973:83) argues that for many people the principal motivation for participating in various group tours is “more possibilities for new encounters, rather than desire to go for sightseeing.“ Socializing offered by such travelling is emphasized by Schuchat (1983:471) as well.
Even where the practice of natural and cultural heritage interpretation has longer tradition, as in the USA, the term “interpreter” still raises confusion, having another meaning of “translator” in the English language. 4 Similarly, in some Slavic languages, for instance, in Serbian and Croatian, the term interpretator is more related to music or song performers while another, similar term tumač is synonymous with the (court) interpreter.
In academic literature, one can find different definitions of “interpretation”. Thus, for example, in the Encyclopedia of Tourism it has been stated that it is “any activity which seeks to explain to people the significance of an object, a culture or a place“ (Jafari, 2000:327). Some authors argue that a form of educational activity is in question (Tilden, 1977), whereas others speak of communication process whose aim is to present the audience with the significance of natural and cultural values. Thus, American National Associ-ation for Interpretation(NAI) says: “Interpretation is a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual
The author has noticed that there are married couples opting for guided tours since they need a mediator for interaction: the members of a tourist group thus replace absent children or colleagues from work in order to assume that role. Schuchat emphasizes that there are tourists reluctant to establish more open contact with their companions, which may irritate the others, since this is the very relationship they look for in new encounters and unknown situations. “If a tour is both large enough and long enough – more than a week – people tend to sift themselves out, and those looking for that perfect stranger may even bridge the crowded room while those not wanting involvement learn who they can find a game of small talk with“ (Ibid.).
Pond (1993:15) quotes one of the interpreters of the Foundation in colonial Villiamsburgh in Virginia: “I get so tired of telling people, ‘No, not a foreign language interpreter; a historical interpreter.’ So most of the time I tell people I’m a tour guide. That they always understand.” connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings inherent in the resource”.
Vukonić (2008:118), sees the notion of heritage interpretation, instead, within the wider tourism context emphasizing the entire mode and content of presenting cultural and historical subject, its objective interpretation as well as the use in cultural life of our own environment. The author states that the argument on interpreting cultural heritage has been initiated even before the discussion had started in terms of tourism, in his opinion caused by the need of finding adequate funds for historical heritage preservation. Truly, interpretation practice in the world was firstly accepted by certain national parks, game parks, museums and similar institutions of public sector.
In time, it found its application in tourism, information and promotional activities as well as tourist guiding.
Interpretation is a means of tourism management aimed at explaining visitors and tourists the importance of various natural and cultural attractions at a destination so as to spur comprehension, positive impression, admiration, i.e. to raise consciousness on responsible behaviour in the function of local heritage preservation. Interpretation serves to enhance enjoyment of tourists by transferring to them symbolic meanings and facilitating changes in their attitudes and behaviour: this is why it represents the key for establishing intellectual and emotional connections between the visitor and particular destinations.
Pearce (2005:11-12) emphasizes that tourists interact with destinations they visit, and the common process of influence is sometimes supported by interpretation, which alone represents the process of presenting places for tourist usage. The author gives the example of a local site in Australia (Kimberleys) and says: “By itself the attraction and the setting are at best not compelling, less kindly, it is a depressing wasteland. But an enthusiastic presentation that identifies the site as the conclusion of the longest stock drives in the world and relates it to the pioneering history of the Kimberleys rich in social drama, transforms the ordinary into the notable“ (Ibid.).
Competitiveness of a destination is affected by affordability, variety and quality of interpretative media, since they are directly connected with tourists needs, interests and expectations, the degree of attractiveness of natural or cultural resources, as well as the local community activities oriented to environmental protection. It is extremely important that the entire knowledge on resources, both technical and “local“, is available to all segments of the society, including suppliers of services in tourism.
Naturally, ”human factor“ is of vital importance for the interpretation efficiency, in other words – trained tourist guides, curators and other interpreters (Vargas, 2007).
Interpretation is achieved directly or indirectly via different media and means (poster, exhibit label, map or sketch, audio, both audio and visual guide, marked tourist trails, travel guides-Baedekers and the like). Direct or personal interpretation involves face-to-face interaction and communication between the audience and the tourist guide, curator or other information provider during a visit to the site. Staiff and Bushell (2003:101) coined the term interpretation environment for all the means used for interpretation activities.
There has still been very little empirical research oriented at the evaluation of various interpretative means, especially media of personal interpretation. Cheng (2005) mentions one of these analyses, in which it has been remarked that the visitors at a destination most frequently use the means of indirect interpretation (signalization, signage, brochures etc.), although personal interpretation represents the most efficient method of achieving visitors’ satisfaction. In her PhD thesis An Evaluation of Heritage Tourism Interpretation Services in Taiwan, the author suggests a model of special training courses in the field of cultural heritage interpretation.
Brochu and Merriman (2007:3) say that “interpreters or guides help audiences make connections with history, culture, science, and the special places on the planet“ claiming that they “handle a very sacred trust – the stories of where humankind has been, who we are, and what we have learned.“
Weaver (2006:186) points out that the interpretative role of tourist guide has its advantages and disadvantages. As opposed to the “static ways“ of interpretation (such as signage), experienced guides can adapt their message to demographic and psychological characteristics of audience, as well as according to relevant situational factors.
Additionally, they can respond to questions or make them, and generally be engaged in a dialogue with audience, thus using their enthusiasm and personality in order to make the interpretation even more convincing. The basic problem is that the efficiency drops with larger groups, causing problems particularly with mass tourist attractions. Expertise and knowledge are usually ascribed to local residents (members and supposed connoisseurs of domicile culture) working as guides. However, they can well lack professionalism or, instead, the adequate comprehension of the language, culture and values of customers.
According to Timothy and Boyd (2003:195), it is important to emphasize that there are also certain authors expressing critical attitudes towards interpretation, since they think it impedes immediate and personal tourist experience. Such opinions are obviously based on the poor assumption that all people possess enough knowledge and ability to comprehend independently the value of a certain place as well as to establish contact unless they previously formed opinion about it.
Interpretation criticism should be directed primarily towards the doer of the action, since in practice, it is true that there are examples of ineffective interpretation due to flagrant propaganda, manipulation attempts, content trivialization, and even narcissist performance in which the importance of messages provided is inferior to the “performance.”
Obviously, interpretation mission has an inspiring effect on tourists, and it is of strategic importance for the destination as the means of tourism management.
TOURIST GUIDE’S INTERPRETIVE COMMENTARY
On the basis of well-known interpretation principles defined by Tilden (1977), interpretative commentary should meet the following: raise interest; reveal deeper meaning and truth; resemble stories; approach the subject and the listener in an understanding way; be adapted to the type of audience (children, elderly people); use adequate communication techniques; rely on interpreter’s dedication to the subject and audience.
Interpretative commentary offers more than mere facts employed in order to explain the importance of attractions or facilities, thus providing listeners with true understanding, raising their interest and observation ability, also helping them in developing personal skills of space “reading”, experiencing history, artistic feeling.
In that sense, dimensions of buildings and statues or the corner stone laying ceremony date of some facility etc., usually stated by tourist guides, represent trivial data unless they are a part of an interesting story: “Tourists are not pretty much impressed by remnants at an archeological site or the façade of an old building unless they hear a story, unless the characters and events related to the site become vivid in front of the visitors’ very eyes“ (Đukić Dojčinović, 2005:52).
The fact is that people remember messages, not data: in order to involve visitors in the sightseeing topic, thematically oriented approach should be a much better solution. Pond (1993:143) mentions the case of a schoolchildren group whose teacher, obviously on the basis of earlier experiences, gave the guide a piece of advice at the beginning of a city tour: “Please, no dates or statistics. We’re here to enjoy ourselves.”
The theme interpretation relies on the fact that the topic and message can “persuade“ the audience or provoke positive reactions in an individual: knowledge, feeling (empathy) and (action). To achieve such results, it is necessary for the interpretative topic to be strong and irresistible; unconvincing or weak topics are not so effective often being insufficiently interesting:
“We have grown a little weary of those few who still cling tenaciously to the old ‘teacher-tell’ model of interpretation wherein interpreters are advised to set ‘knowing’ objectives that specify what visitors will remember after an interpretive program (e.g., ‘they will be able to state three reasons that…’, or ‘the four ways that…’, or ‘the five kinds of….’ …[T]his sort of thinking produces interpretive programs that are focused too narrowly on audiences’ factual recall of esoteric content… [Interpretation] is intended to move us, not “teach” us.
Most interpreters would agree that the two are qualitatively different“ (Ham; Weiler, 2003)7. Quality interpretation demands comprehensive knowledge on the topic and presentation skills, thus it is logical that those demands cannot be met by anyone.
Specialization in tourist guiding is a precondition, practiced by domicile guides in some cases. Personal interest, affinity and willingness influence individuals’ immersion in a topic, whereas research enthusiasm and satisfaction with personal “revelation” have been transferred to audience as well. Tilden (1977:94) makes a point when, writing about interpretation principles, emphasizes: “I feel certain that the single principle must McGrath (2003:16) has rightly claimed the following:
“The role of the guide then in a post-modern context is to introduce something additionally, something that visitors cannot obtain via any other media as well as to expand the traditional pathfinders aim of providing, ‘access to an otherwise non-public terrain’ to the encompass the intellectual terrain locked and otherwise inaccessible.”
The fact that the message and good story are relevant for the interpretation effect is proved by a personal experience of this author. Several years ago, a Dutch TV reporter visited Belgrade, having arranged a private walking tour. He had some time before the tour, so he walked along the Kalemegdan fortress on his own.
When he met the guide, he was not quite willing to return to the spot, being of the opinion that what he had seen is sufficient. (“The park is nice, there are ramparts, outstanding view – quite an interesting place“). The guide convinced him, though, to start sightseeing of the Fortress, where its historic layers were interpreted, important events, strange life destinies. The visitor followed the story attentively, occasionally making notes, and at the end of the tour suddenly asked:“You have told me that the Fortress is in the UNESCO world heritage list, isn’t it?“
Even though such a hint was never made, now – owing to the interpretation – he saw the Fortress through different eyes, as a historical military monument which should be placed in that prestigious list. A site previously perceived as only interesting, has becomeimportant during the tour: interpretation gave it an entirely different meaning and sense (Rabotić, 2007:1043). be Love.” Grinder and McCoy (cited in: Knudson et al., 2003:10) are of similar opinion:
“Tour guide’s enthusiasm, skillfulness, desire, and willingness to share information can help visitors, young and old, make connections between their own lives and valued artifacts, art objects, and history as represented by museum collections.”
The goal of interpretive commentary is achieved only when it connects tangible (the place, objects, people) with intangible aspects (ideas, concepts, meanings), the thing that the audience finds to be new with what has been familiar or sensed. It is well-known that people respond better to the information adapted to their knowledge and experience.
If we agree that interpretive tourist guides can ”transfer” tourists, intellectually speaking, from the sphere of unknown into the sphere of known by using cultural patterns and idioms that tourists are familiar with (Cohen, 1985), then the interpretation quality essentially depends on the tourist guide’s communicative and intercultural competence. Ooi (2002) claims that mediation has a central position in creating tourist experiences.
Postmodern tourists and especially group travellers are not ready to invest greater intellectual and physical effort into their experience while travelling. As a result, the visited destination for them may remain a patchwork of fleeting images and signs appearing and disappearing in front of their very eyes. It is the guide who helps tourists to “move forward“ by selecting and interpreting cultural peculiarities (otherwise ignored or misunderstood) since as a “symbol specialist“ he or she offers explanations of “hardly available“ signs.
Simultaneously, tourists expect from guides to show sensibility to both their own and the guest’s culture, which according to Yu et al. (2001) makes the ”ambassador’s responsibility” of professional tourist guides. With this in mind, ”bi-cultural” guides are more successful and competent than the ”monocultural” ones, owing to personal experience of participation in other culture, for instance, through education or longer staying abroad (Wu; Haywood, 2001).
A typical example of interpretative commentary is storytelling. Still, taking into consideration the majority of guides, Pond (1993:144) seems to be right when she says that for many of them the idea of storytelling itself is even somewhat offensive:
”Moreover, the very concept of telling stories tugs at their valued perceptions of themselves as accurate historians, for the word storycarries for many the connotation of falsehood.” Naturally, tourist guiding involves a story supported by reliable data, but this should not be the reason to eliminate myths, legends or anecdotes, because they so effectively convey certain messages.
It seems that in estimating what makes a “good tourist guide“ there is nothing controversial, still employers, clients and guides themselves can have different perception and view points about significance and priority of particular qualities. Pond (1993) remarks that it is extremely important for guides to possess several specific personal characteristics; others are skills that should be acquired or demonstrated in practice. Some of these are so vague and fluid that it is not easy to define them, let alone measure them. The nature of accommodating contact with clients, and above all a high level of interaction it entails, influence customer perceptions not only about guides’ personal characteristics but also of their interpretation as an integral part of service quality.
It is questionable whether tourist guides are, despite being given a license by local authorities, ready to assume the role of the interpreter of nature, history and heritage in general. The form of their training in many countries is mostly based on revising secondary school knowledge on geography, history, cultural heritage of certain regions etc., usually neglecting presentation and communication skills, group dynamics management or anything else which also makes ”the art of guiding”8: navigation, positioning of the group, assessing group’s abilities, pointing out precisely, timing commentary, storytelling, voice projection (audibility), non-verbal presentation and the like.
Cherem (cited in: Christie; Mason, 2003:5) stresses the importance of the skills of delivery over actual knowledge in guiding and he claims all guides are interpreters first, and subject specialists second. This is why adopting the new European standard in 2008 with the EU member states (EN 15565) represents a major step in this respect, presenting the mode of professional training for tourist guides and qualifications of those providing it. 9 As for the planned scope and training content, it is all about the balanced combination of theoretical knowledge and concrete skills; an additional value of the norm is the way of practical training in the form of demonstration tours and field trips.
Organising quality training for tourist guides has to be one of tourism policy priorities in non-EU countries as well. Besides, there is also a need for these topics to be included in the curriculum of higher tourism education institutions, as in Turkey, Egypt and some other countries, where even do exist departments for tourist guiding at certain faculties.10 Tourist guide license, which is usually obtained upon attending specially organized training courses, is automatically issued to the students who successfully complete the studies.
Additionally, introducing “Tourist Guiding Management“ as a new subject (regular or optional) in the curriculum of vocational tourism studies (as in the case of the Turistica Faculty in Portorož11) would provide future decision-makers in tourism industry with an insight into this important and specific profession whose nature and mode of functioning is rather unknown to various tourism stakeholders, and therefore cannot be adequately used or evaluated.
The students of tourism would thus be given an opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills not included in current curricula. Also, it would enable individuals to recognize their affinity towards this type of work and optionally decide on taking special exams in tourist guiding or tour managing. The more highly educated professionals in tourist guiding, the better effects would be achieved in tourism practice. Finally, as for colleges of tourism, it is natural not to avoid a profession which is inevitable in the contemporary organized tourism.
Efforts to change generally low perceptions about one profession is neither a simple nor easy task for its members to fulfill on their own, without somebody else’s
Source: BRANISLAV RABOTIĆ PhD, Lecturer Visoka turistička škola strukovnih studija (College of Tourism), Belgrade
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