Malaysia’s women tour guides are paving the way for travel

Norazleeta Ismail explains Malay customs and culture outside Master Mat's house in Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

Trying to catch a connecting flight, sticking to a travel schedule and staying safe in a foreign country can be stressful for some people. But can you imagine doing all that while caring for a group of tourists?

For many women travel guides and tour leaders, navigating their way across new destinations presents its own set of unique challenges. At times, they find themselves dealing with chauvinistic clients who undermine their authority, or folks who just can’t be satisfied with anything.

Living out of a suitcase also impacts personal relationships.

All that, however, is secondary next to the joy that they derive from helping others better understand the world and have a good time on their holidays.

Tech savvy globetrotter

When many of her peers worked 9-to-5 jobs, Elspeth Ooi had bigger dreams in mind. Fresh out of college, she decided to join a travel agency, where she lead her first tour at the age of 22.

She has seen many parts of the world while on the job.

Elspeth Ooi travels about eight times a year for work. Photo: Elspeth Ooi

“When I post (travel) pictures on social media, my friends always tell me how lucky I am to be able to travel for work. But the feeling when you are on your own holiday is different from when you are travelling with clients,” she reveals.

For starters, Ooi is tasked with looking after the safety and well-being of the tour groups that she leads. And yes, that sometimes includes making sure nobody misses the plane.

“In the days leading up to a trip, I will double and triple check the itinerary. I will also call my clients and remind them to pack their passports,” she admits sheepishly.

Earlier on in her career, Ooi only travelled to Asian countries, but now, she has expanded her horizons. Ooi, 30, currently works with Apple Vacations where she supervises product management and development in Western countries.

Ooi says being a tour leader gives her the opportunity to meet many people and forge friendships. Photo: Elspeth Ooi

With close to a decade of experience in the travel industry, Ooi says the newer generation of tour leaders have it easier compared to their older counterparts.

“Technology has made travel easier these days, and it has also made my job better. There are so many apps that help me get around in a new city. The Internet makes research faster too.

“I really respect my seniors who had to memorise maps in the past when they lead a tour,” Ooi says, adding that navigation and language apps are also helpful while travelling.

The downside to an increasingly connected world is that Ooi needs to stay informed and provide travellers with information that surpasses those found on Google.

“Some travellers will check out a place online before a trip, so I need to make sure I am well prepared,” she says.

But while technology is great, common sense remains a tour leader’s biggest ally.

Ooi says a tour leader needs to be independent and be able to overcome pressure. Ooi recounts how she had to deal with the sudden death of a client due to heart attack during a tour in Bangkok, Thailand.

Being a tour leader means that Ooi gets the chance to travel to many parts of the world and see iconic sights. Photo: Elspeth Ooi

“I cried so much when I got the news, but I had the responsibility to ensure the family and authorities are well informed,” she explains, detailing how she contacted the Malaysian embassy there and arranged for the body to be flown home.

“As tour leaders and managers, we need to be able to overcome pressures. We also need to be alert as we are looking out for a big group of people,” says Ooi, who has led tour groups with 40 people.

Dealing with a plethora of personalities also means that Ooi has to be extra sensitive to moods and feelings.

“Many customers go on holidays with travel agents because they trust us to care for them during the trip. I need to be a good listener and communicator,” she reveals, adding that she considers many past clients friends now.

On average, Ooi travels about eight times a year for work, with each trip lasting about two weeks. She admits that living out of a suitcase can be tough for women tour leaders as sometimes they will miss special occasions with loved ones back home.

“When I first started, my senior colleagues tell me that if I find a boyfriend – I should quickly marry him,” she jokes.

“Your partner needs to be very understanding and be comfortable with your travel schedule,” adds Ooi, who will be tying the knot soon.

Moving forward, she foresees that she will remain in the profession for a very long time.

“In many other jobs, you will just sit in the office all day. I want to continue doing what I do and discover something new every time I travel.”

ALSO READ: How to see the world as a solo female traveller

Being firm and friendly

Rude tourists is a hazard that comes with the job for many tour guides. But for women guides especially, it’s an incident that happens far more often. It’s something that culture and heritage guide Norazleeta Ismail can attest to.

During her time guiding with the Kuala Lumpur Tourism Bureau, Norazleeta, 50, has encountered her fair share of travellers who try to undermine her authority just because of her gender.

“When this happens, I will need to be firm with them,” she says, adding that it’s also her duty to remain friendly at the same time. Norazleeta details an incident involving guests who deliberately made her wait a long time for them at a hotel lobby. There were also times when a guest spoke loudly over her while she was giving a briefing.

According to Norazleeta, a guide needs to know her subject matter very well to be able to impart knowledge on tourists.

“Sometimes when they see you’re a woman, they think you can be easily bullied. It’s up to the women guides to show them who’s in charge of the tour,” she says. According to Norazleeta, authority is important when dealing with a large group of people.

Don’t bank on Norazleeta raising her voice, though. With the friendly guide who specialises in cultural tours and mosque visits, she prefers to use a softer approach.

“With guests who talk loudly, ignoring would be the best way to deal with the situation,” she says. As for the know-it-all guests, Norazleeta teases their curiosity by giving out interesting nuggets of information.

That is why a guide needs to be well-versed on the area and subject that she is covering, she says.

“A guide needs to do a lot of research and reading. We need to prepare mentally as we are imparting knowledge to people who visit out country,” she explains.

Norazleeta Ismail says guiding is great for women as its something that they can do on a freelance basis. Photo: Norazleeta Ismail

As a Muslim, Norazleeta also performs solat hajat before a tour to pray that everything goes smoothly. She adds that one’s religion shouldn’t dictate whether or not one can be a competent guide.

Norazleeta has faced scrutiny from some people simply because of the nature of her job – she is required to be in the company of strangers and foreigners.

“I don’t let their opinions affect me. You will still find me having a meal at a warung with travellers who come from many cultural and religious backgrounds. I don’t think it should be an issue,” she says, adding that she has not faced any unwanted advances while guiding.

However, Norazleeta says the welfare of guides – regardless of gender – should be better taken care of.

“Most guides don’t have a basic salary. Many of us are freelancers and sometimes we are at the mercy of travel agents who delay our payment after we conduct a tour,” she says.

Norazleeta enjoys the interaction with the many travellers she meet during a tour. Photo: Norazleeta Ismail

Norazleeta adds that the authorities should look into the matter of unlicensed guides too.

“Guides who don’t go for proper training will explain things based on their own personal opinion. Sometimes, their personal views don’t paint the best picture of the country,” she says.

Despite the challenges that guides face, Norazleeta says it’s an enriching and fulfilling vocation.

“Guiding is great for women, especially for mothers; (they can do it) while their kids are away at school. Just remember to always be courteous, humble and willing to upgrade your knowledge.”

ALSO READ: Meet the fearless women in adventure travel

Having a supportive network

Bernadette Jiliu says that it is important for a guide to always handle any difficult situation in a calm and professional way. Photo: Bernadette Jiliu

Bernadette Jiliu has more than 30 years in the travel industry. She is currently the sales and marketing manager in charge of MICE (meeting, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) for Borneo Trails, a tour operator based in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

Jiliu, 59, shares that her passion for guiding began when her uncle suggested she work at the Sabah Tourist Association in 1980.

“The association requested that I take up the tour guide course,” she says. Subsequently, Jiliu worked as an inbound tour guide until 1995 – she has done so much more to get where she is today.

“My work is very interesting because even as a sales and marketing manager, I still get to liaise and interact with clients when they arrive in the country,” she says, adding that her clients are usually from the Asia Pacific region.

Jiliu also attends trade shows overseas, such as ITB (Internationale Tourismus-Borse, the world’s biggest tourism trade event) and the Asia Pacific Incentives Meetings Event to look for new business partners and also promote Malaysia as a tourist destination.

It was not always easy for Jiliu, who is married with four grown-up children, to juggle her professional and personal life. But she is thankful for the support and understanding of her spouse, as well as her mother, who were always there to assist with the children when they were younger.

“They gave me the drive to press forward and get to where I am today,” she notes.

Jiliu, who is tri-lingual (Bahasa Malaysia, English and Kadazandusun), says that initially, she thought that the travel industry was a tough world to be in.

“To be honest, I never dreamt that I could be in this industry. But I went into it with the support of my family and it feels great to be able to succeed at this,” she says.

While it is a known fact that tour guides sometimes have to deal with issues like difficult guests, Jiliu advises younger peers to never lose their cool and to always handle the situation in a calm and professional way.

She is quick to add that she considers herself blessed that she has rarely encountered any discrimination or harassment during her days as a tour guide.

According to Jiliu, to be a good quality guide, one must have strong communication skills and a positive attitude towards life. Having a good sense of humour is important, too. She feels that one of the biggest challenges women face today is in garnering the support from other women.

“Women should support and empower one another, starting with the basic principles of who we are, our morals, values and integrity. Rather than have a win-lose attitude, we should have a win-win attitude,” Jiliu advises.

“It is very important for women to have a supportive network, to be humble, show togetherness, passion, excellence and enthusiasm in our work.”

It is Jiliu’s desire to see the tourism industry in Malaysia continue growing and improving. For her, every destination is special in its own way. However, she does have a dream destination – Switzerland.

Ramsay Sime Darby Health Care and Bursa Malaysia Berhad are the sponsors of The Star’s WOW – Women Do Wonders campaign to celebrate and pay tribute to women in conjunction with International Women’s Day on March 8. For details, go to

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