By Pepper Marcelo
When one visits a foreign country for the first time, the first and sometimes only native person he encounters is the tour guide. Not only does this person introduce and explain the history, culture and landmarks of the country, but a more crucial element is that the guide frequently becomes the de facto representative of an entire people. Questions that are often asked upon their return: “Were they friendly?”, “Did they have good manners?”
Thus, it is essential to put one’s best foot forward in order to make the best impression upon visiting guests. After all, a satisfied visitor that was treated well will more likely visit again (and again) and through positive word of mouth, recommend that country to friends and family. This bodes well for that nation’s local tourism industry and, in turn, contributes to the overall economy.
Cognizant of this, the Department of Tourism (DOT) has created a program called “Mabuhay Guides” to train extensively an eager group of men and women to become not only the most knowledgeable and friendly tour guides, but, in essence, be “ambassadors of a nation.”
With the improvement of many sectors of the tourism industry, it was only logical that tourist guides themselves get an upgrade.
“The quality of hotels, the service of our airlines, the travel agencies, the tour operators are improving. There was a missing component that was very important in enhancing the tourist experience, and that was the tourist guide,” says Tourism Secretary Ace Durano.
“We needed a new breed of tour guides that has different perspective, sees the Philippines differently,” he adds. “No matter how you train someone as a tour guide, how you feel about your product and how you feel about your country will really come out. So we needed a fresh perspective.”
Another proponent of the program is Susan Calo-Medina, producer-host of the ANC show Travel Time.
“The Philippines has long been known for its beautiful vistas and a warm, welcoming people,” she says. “By developing both, the Department of Tourism hopes to create an unbeatable combination.”
An advertisement for DOT tourist guides was placed on Calo-Medina’s program and local newspapers, and over 200 aspirants from various disciplines – from teachers to advertising professionals – applied. After a rigid screening, the list was trimmed to a core group of 25.
“I see tour guiding as an extension of teaching. Whereas I used to teach inside a classroom, I now teach outside the confines of classroom, with the [tourist] sites themselves as my visual aides,” explains Irene Fernandez why she joined the program.
The first batch of Mabuhay Guides underwent an intensive six-week training course on many aspects of Philippine culture – from history, arts, architecture, and geography, to the environment, cuisine and music.
“Our first batch of graduates comes from different backgrounds, different professions and went through such a rigorous program taking seminars from the best resource persons,” says Durano.
The lecturers were experts and luminaries in their respective fields, including National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario, UP Humanities Professor Felipe de Leon Jr. and former Central Bank Governor Jaime Laya, who is an avid antique and art collector.
“What attracted me [to the program] were the lecturers,” says Therese Carlos. ”I wanted to undergo training under these prominent people in their respective fields.”
The guides also underwent training in various skills and subject matters, such as grooming, good manners, health issues, personality development and first aid. Moreover, representatives from the prestigious London Blue Badge, the premier qualification group for tour guides in Britain, engaged the trainees in rigorous, on-site sessions by bus and foot.
The rigorous and specialized instruction demonstrate that tour guiding is more than simply dishing out historical and cultural facts, but, more importantly, it is connecting with, and even entertaining, a discriminating audience.
“I realize that tour guiding involves developing a lot of empathy for the tourist, so we think about his safety and comfort, and how he reacts to what we’re saying,” says guide Yael Fernandez.
After the training, Mabuhay Guides are given their certificate and an official badge. Because the program is associated with the DOT, the graduates became fully accredited members of the World Federation of Tourist Guide Association.
In a speech during the graduation ceremonies, Fernandez said, “Our reason for joining was one and the same: all of us share the same vision, a strong desire to share our talents for the benefit of the tourism industry and the Philippines. We consider it an honor and privilege to be called Mabuhay Guides, and we are committed to serve the department and be the best we can be so that other people can appreciate the country the way we do.”
Currently, the Mabuhay Guides are individually deployed on an appointment basis through the DOT, servicing an assortment of visitors from all over the world – business investors, trade industry players and niché travelers – in and around the Metro Manila area. Trips include visits to the Walled City of Intramuros covering such historical sites as Fort Santiago, Manila Cathedral, San Agustin Church and Palacio del Gobernador. The city itinerary also covers neighboring Binondo, Escolta and Quiapo.
Visitors and guides explore the city by bus and on foot along main roads like Roxas Boulevard and Ayala Avenue and by boat on the Pasig River. The DOT is working on expanding the tour routes to neighboring provinces like Batangas, Cavite and Rizal.
Becoming a Mabuhay Guide has expanded one’s initial objectives of gaining employment and traveling.
“I envision that my tour guiding would impact on nation-building, that this will not be a simple job for me, but something that would influence my fellow countrymen to be proud of the Philippines and for us to really promote tourism in the country,” says guide Maria Morena Galvelo.
Calo-Medina concurs: “We all have a Mabuhay Guide in each of us, waiting to be let loose. All we have to do is know more about our country and our culture and share it with the world.”