Tourist guides give their unvarnished view of
the international guests who visit our country, including their quirks
THE general consensus in the tourist guide community is that diplomacy is always part and parcel of the job. At the core, tourism is a service-centric industry and often times, tourist guides are the ones who receive first-hand interaction and view of the colourful characters who visit our country.
Elizabeth Chong has been a tourist guide since 1993 and has numerous observations of international guests. However, one particular occurrence stood out.
“Tourists from English-speaking nations are usually very surprised that we speak English well. They would ask incredulously where we learnt English. Some would assume that we were educated in their country,” Chong muses.
“I guess they have low expectations of our level of English proficiency. There are some who actually underestimate us and that can be quite off-putting or uncomfortable,” she adds.
However, Chong who is currently a tourist guide trainer with a private college in Penang, isn’t bitter about the experience, choosing to take it in her stride instead.
“There are instances that can be awkward. As tour guides, we have to adapt and take on the point-of-view of a host. There are many anecdotes that we can learn from,” says Chong.
As it turns out, timing is one of them.
“Western tourists usually have an excellent sense of timing,” Chong reveals.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for visitors from the Middle East and India, who are not known for their punctuality.
Chong notes that differences in culture are interesting – for instance, some international tourists don’t drink tea or coffee with condensed milk, and view eating with hands as uncouth.
“Spitting in public is seemingly OK for the Chinese or some Asian tourists, but not for the Westerners. Combing hair or putting on lipstick at the dining table is considered bad manners by many Westerners, too. The list goes on,” says Chong.
There was even an incidence where an elderly English gentleman retorted, “If I don’t take off my shoes for my Queen, why should I do that for you?”, when asked to go barefoot before entering a home.
Bidiindra Suppiah Solomon shares Chong’s sentiments regarding the conflict of culture. The upside of the difference, she notes, is the fact that you get to learn many new and enriching things about another’s culture and demeanour.
The Penangite, who’s been freelancing as a tour guide since 2003, says she enjoys the company of visitors from Thailand and Europe, who are usually very pleasant and good-natured.
“Australians are very cool people. They love to party and sometimes, I get invited to party with them after the tour is over,” says Bidiindra with a laugh.
The same can’t be said about her experience with Americans, whom Bidiindra says can come across as arrogant sometimes. However, she likes the fact that this group of tourists is “very straightforward” and knows what they want.
“Europeans tend to ask more questions. They are curious about our culture and heritage,” Bidiindra reveals.
It’s usually the regional tourists who make her job more interesting, though.
“Chinese tourists are quite difficult to predict. For example, they like to change a planned itinerary without thinking about other people’s needs,” says Bidiindra. That aside, she appreciates the occasional punctuality displayed by this group of tourists.
As for the fussier ones, Bidiindra says that trait is usually displayed by visitors from India and Singapore. When it comes to tipping, though, she says the Indonesians are more generous.
“You observe all these different mentalities as a tour guide,” says Bidiindra, adding that the knowledge will help her better cater to the visitors.
Chong thinks it’s imperative to understand where the tourists are coming from so that you don’t offend them.
“We learn from experience the characteristics of each nationality. How to gauge the timing required or even how to communicate. For some, like the Japanese, they demand that the tour guide be excellent with the language. But the English-speaking tourists are usually very forgiving,” says Chong.
And of course, understanding their dining behaviour will also ensure greater comfort for the international guests.
“Visitors from continental Europe prefer a leisurely meal. So, you have to set aside two hours for them to dine. As for the Asian tourists, such as those from China and South Korea, once they have their fill, they are happy. So, half an hour is usually enough for their meals,” says Chong.
Chong also states that most Spanish tourists have an aversion to any trace of spiciness in their food, and Dutch visitors have a refined palate and can be rather particular about their food.
When it comes to the trip’s itinerary, travel agent Catherine Soon says it’s usually the Westerners who are more particular.
“Western tourists prefer more specified itineraries, whereas tourists from Asian countries are more flexible,” she says.
Soon, who operates Good Earth Travel and Tour in Kota Kinabalu, says both tour guide and tourist must co-operate to ensure a pleasant experience for both parties.
Just like the international visitors to our country, Malaysians who travel abroad have also built a reputation for our quirky characteristics.
“A popular observation is that we have a tendency to not read signs, and that gets some of us lost while in another country. Also, we tend to be loud and have no respect for silence in places like museums, art galleries and places of worship,” Chong shares.
“The need for a rice meal every day is also very ‘us’, just like the Koreans insisting on kimchi. There has also been a long-standing anecdote about how during buffet breakfast, Malaysians are also famous for eating hardboiled eggs, including its shells, because there are no shells left behind on the table,” she says.
“In reality, the eggs have been pocketed to be eaten later in the coach just in case one gets hungry,” Chong explains.
Malaysian Tourist Guides Council president Jimmy Leong says tourist-guiding has many important and multi-faceted roles which are complex and diverse in present-day tourism.
“Similar to any customer service position, certain personalities and group configurations will present challenges. A good tourist guide will always remain calm, composed, skilful and react diplomatically when he or she runs into difficult personalities. Grouses and problems are to be handled as tactfully and professionally as possible,” offers Leong.
“Apart from the ability to share information about and promote Malaysia, and having good communication skills, another important aspect of the tourist guide’s role is to facilitate cultural understanding among the tourists they handle,” he added.
Chong, who’s currently training a new generation of tourist guides, makes it a point to remind her students to uphold the country’s tourism integrity.
“I tell them to place themselves in the tourists’ shoes. If you go on holiday with your hard-earned cash, won’t you want to be treated kindly, sincerely and with good things in mind?” Chong offers.
“A good tourist guide must be sincere and honest, have a good sense of hospitality and genuine interest in the welfare and experience of the tourists so that when they go home, they will spread good words about their holiday – and that is better than any advertisement,” she concludes.
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