It wasn’t too long ago that pretty much every adventure travel trip had a ‘Western’ tour guide leading it or, at the very least, accompanying local tour guides. Then over the last 20 years, more and more tour operators started marketing that their trips were operated with local tour guides and therefore allowing you, the DMC, to tell your customers that they will learn more, experience more and have a more ‘real’ experience. Today, in Thailand, a mixture of both styles continues to exist. Some inbound tour companies work only with non-Thai tour guide leaders, others with only local tour guides and some with both Thai and Western tour leaders.

So, what’s actually best from the traveler’s perspective?

And not a Thai guide sitting at the back to tick the legality box, but a Thai guide leading in their country from the front.

Bruce Haxton

Managing Director

The Law and Tour Guides in Thailand

One thing we have to put to one side is the law, which is pretty clear in Thailand. Groups are required to have a tour guide, tour guides are required to have a license, and licenses are only issued to Thai nationals. You’d expect this would put the issue to bed but, Thailand being Thailand, it’s not quite as simple as that and there are enough illegal non-Thai tour guides operating here today to make the debate on local tour guides versus ‘Western’ tour guides very important today, particularly as more and more youth travel operators seem to believe that their customers want a ‘Westerner’ with them or that they are cheaper and more pliable.

The Arguments For Western Tour Guides

There are many arguments put forward by DMCs using illegal tour guides, ranging from the lack of suitable language skills amongst Thai guides, the potential for cultural misunderstandings, the lack of customer service skills to the ability to understand what travellers are looking for in a tour guide. As a rule, all of the above are simply cover for taking the ‘easy’ way out and depriving your travellers from a key part of the experience they are seeking – an authentic experience of the country and its people.

Leaving aside the fact that any destination management company employing illegal tour guides puts their business partners in a tricky position – will liability insurance pay out if your group is led by an illegal worker? – a Thai guide is always the best option in Thailand. And not a local tour guide sitting at the back to tick the legality box, but a Thai guide leading in their country from the front.

Top Local Tour Guide Myths

Let’s go ahead and banish some of the myths out there in the travel industry about tour guides.

Language Skills

Sure, if you’re running trips for Kalahari Bushmen it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to find a ready supply of Thai guides with strong Bushmen language skills. However, if your customers speak English or most other core European languages, then you don’t have to look far at all to find Thai guides with excellent language skills. Of course, they may well, and probably do, have an ‘accent’ but surely your customers are OK with that? Flip this on it’s side and we find most Thais speak much better Thai than anyone else. And the trip is taking place in Thailand. And everyone they are dealing with to ensure that the tour runs well and their customers get every last ounce out of their experience, are Thai. So the trade off between a slight accent and being able to speak clearly with every person your group comes into contact with is a no-brainer, surely.

Cultural Misunderstandings

They happen everywhere and are often part and parcel of travel. However, as anyone operating in Thailand is aware, Thais are incredibly forgiving of visitors who make unintentional (or even intentional!) mistakes and faux pas. Every Thai guide we’ve ever worked with has been enormously proud of their culture and heritage and are desperate to help their customers learn about their country and culture while being understanding of the fact that people from other countries do things differently. So perhaps the cultural misunderstanding runs the other way, and those using illegal Western guides are worried that Thai guides won’t understand the customer?

Leisure travel is propelled by the desire to learn about and experience the place we’re visiting. We can’t help but wonder what cultural misunderstandings people are truly worried about. Thais are known around the world for being a welcoming, hospitable, fun-loving and gracious people. Even if this is a bit of a marketing overstatement, why wouldn’t you want someone like this as your tour guide rather than someone from overseas?

Lacking Customer Service Skills

A lack of service skills or the real understanding of what customers want is something trotted out frequently by those taking jobs away from the people who know their country best. Really? Like pretty much any country, it’s not hard to find examples in Thailand of where service skills are lacking. But if you allow people to feel valued and supported, deliver ongoing training and combine the natural desire from Thai tour guides to show people the best of their country with the standards and skills you set for your customers, the result is beyond debate. No-one is born with customer service skills, they’re trained and developed, so why not invest in the local workforce in this way?

The DNA of a Perfect Thai Tour Guide

Now let’s look at the positives!

  • Thai people know their language better than anyone else and all the subtleties of communication are extremely difficult for non-native speakers to pick up.
  • Thai people know other Thai people better than anyone else and have a sixth sense when something isn’t right, just like we all do in our own countries.
  • Thai people know their country better than anyone else. Not the ‘guidebook’ version of their country, but the real sense of their country.
  • Thai people are some of the best problem solvers around – particularly in their own country – a great attribute when leading a tour group anywhere.
  • Given the choice, most Thai people would rather have fun and enjoy life than find something to moan and grumble about.
    Thai people really do care about how others view their country and are passionate about helping people see their home and learn about it.
  • In an emergency, who are you going to rely upon – a local with deep knowledge or a foreigner who still hasn’t realised what they don’t know yet, let alone what they do know?
  • If you’re looking for the best food, the coolest bar, the latest trend in Thailand, ask a Thai – after all, if you were in New York you’d ask a New Yorker wouldn’t you?
  • Combine all the points above and we think you have the DNA for the perfect tour guide – why would you look elsewhere, legal or not?

A Local Guide Every Time

Some operators defend their use of non-Thai guides by saying their travellers want and expect people from their own country leading them and aren’t comfortable with a Thai guide. Other than the deeply offensive nature of comments such as these – you’re happy travelling to someone else’s country but don’t want to mix with the locals? – isn’t this missing the point of what travel is meant to be about?

Of course if you’re travelling to sit on a beach – and absolutely nothing wrong with that – then you could be anywhere really, so the nationality of your ‘rep’ is pretty much immaterial. But if you’re travelling to explore, to experience and to enjoy a country, then surely you’d also want to spend time with someone from that country who is professionally trained to deliver what you’re looking for.
Yes, it can be tempting to hire non Thai guides and is, in many ways, the easiest option. But, if you’re focused on delivering quality travel experiences, with all that entails, then surely it has to be a local guide every time.