Tour de Force: A Selected History of Guided Tours

By Clemency Hinton (@clemencyhinton)

Guided tours are part and parcel of today’s tourism industry. In fact, there are over 1,800 registered professional tour guides in the UK alone.[1] Tour guides (also known as rangers, couriers or interpreters) can be traced through history, leading one scholar to describe guiding as likely to be ‘among the world’s oldest professions.’[2] The World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations defines a ‘Tourist Guide’ as a qualified person who ‘guides visitors in the language of their choice and interprets the cultural and natural heritage of an area.’[3] However, guides have existed long before they became part of a recognised profession.

From the ancient Greek and Roman Empires all the way into the Middle Ages, we hear of pathfinders and cicerones; these were entrepreneurial experts who could demonstrate local knowledge and promise to keep any traveller(s) safe.[4] Tourists in antiquity – such as those wishing to visit the Seven Wonders of the World, or to attend the Olympic Games –  could hardly get by without help on their travels.[5] Herodotus himself wrote about using guides as he roamed, favouring those who could translate the local language for him.[6]

By the late Renaissance, guides had taken on what Erik Cohen describes as a complex and heterogeneous ‘mentor’ role.[7] We can see this in the cultural pilgrimages of Europe, made popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, known as ‘Grand Tours.’ Special tutors, ‘articulate, multilingual, and well-versed in many subjects,’ would lead young aristocratic Englishmen on tours through the landmark sites of Europe.[8] This was not just a geographical task; the tutor was also required to police and guide his pupil’s moral and religious conduct whilst abroad.[9]

The Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century brought new and efficient transport technologies which opened up tourism to the masses. The pioneer of national ‘excursions’ in Britain was Thomas Cook, a travelling agent who organised special discounted train services to take groups on pleasure trips around the country.[10] Eventually, by utilising the steam train and ship, Thomas Cook could organise affordable international packaged tours of the Far East, India and America. In 1897, Cook was supplying 20,000 British tourists every year.[11] These large group trips further developed the presence of guides, tour operators and service personnel in fledgling tourism centres.[12]

In the last forty years, tour guiding has been closely scrutinised by scholars and industry authorities. Over 90% of all literature on the subject has been published since 1990, as scholars struggle over the ethical questions of how guides can effectively, sensitively and engagingly bridge the ‘culture gap’ that emerges when tourists visit a foreign destination.[13] This unique challenge has encouraged the industry to professionalise and create codes of service.[14] In the UK the highest qualification for tour guiding is the Blue Badge, which is rewarded ‘only following extensive training and vigorous examination’ by the Institute of Tourist Guiding.[15] Blue Badge guides are acknowledged by the British Tourism Authority as the nation’s official tourist guides.

Today tour guides are left with a complex legacy. Like the ancient pathfinder, they must help their group to physically access tourist sites. Like the renaissance tutor, they are expected to bring cultural and social enlightenment through their interpretation. In the modern world, what they offer must be cheap and accessible too.  If ‘guided tours can be found at more or less all places where tourism exists,’ as some scholars have argued, then in our globalised world, tour guides will not be disappearing any time soon.[16] According to TripAdvisor, historical tours were the fastest growing form of tourism experience booked online in 2018, beating even pre-booked museum passes, culinary courses, outdoor activities and day trips.[17]

The responsibilities taken up by tour guides are set to increase in the years to come. As environmental concerns rise to consciousness and eco-tourism complicates physical access to fragile sites, the next generation of travellers will need to be guided according to principles of sustainable tourism. Meanwhile, the advent of smartphone technology continues to push guides to be innovative and interactive, adding value through their personal interpretation of a site beyond what any app or website could offer.[18]

[1] British Guild of Tourist Guides, “About the Guild: How it Works,” Accessed January 7, 2020.

[2] Kathleen Pond, The Professional Guide: Dynamics of Tour Guiding, First ed. (Wiley, 1993), 1.

[3] World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations, “What is a Tourist Guide?” Accessed January 7, 2020.

[4]See Lionel Casson, “Travel in the Ancient World,” (JHU Press, 1994).

[5] Pond, The Professional Guide, 4.

[6] Betty Weiler and Rosemary Black, Tour Guiding Research: Insights, Issues and Implications, (Channel View Publications, 2014), 11.

[7] Erik Cohen, “The Tourist Guide: The Origins, Structure and Dynamics of a Role,” Annals of Tourism Research, 1985.

[8] Pond, The Professional Guide, 5.

[9] Cohen, “The Tourist Guide,” 8.

[10] “Cook, Thomas,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 7, 1911. Accessed January 7, 2020.,_Thomas

[11] Erkan Sezgin and Medet Yolal, “Golden Age of Mass Tourism: Its History and Development,” from Visions for Global Tourism Industry: Creating and Sustaining Competitive Strategies (Open Access, 2012).

[12] Betty Weiler and Rosemary Black, Tour Guiding Research: Insights, Issues and Implications, (Channel View Publications, 2014), 11.

[13] Weiler and Black, Tour Guiding Research, 5.

[14] See Institute of Tourist Guiding, “History,” Accessed January 7, 2020.

[15] British Guild of Tourist Guides, “About the Guild: How it Works,” Accessed January 7, 2020.

[16] Malin Zillinger, Mikael Jonasson & Petra Adolfsson, “Guided Tours and Tourism,” Scandinavian Journal of Hospitality and Tourism, 12:1, 1-7.

[17]TripAdvisor, “2018 Travel Trends Report,” Accessed January 7, 2020.

[18] Betty Weiler and Rosemary Black, “The Changing Face of the Tour Guide: One-Way Communicator to Choreographer to Co-Creator of the Tourist Experience,” Tourism Recreation Research 40, no. 3 (September 2, 2015): 364–78.

Photo by Janis Oppliger.

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