Why Working as a Travel Guide

Although some guides earn good wages, the work generally isn’t lucrative. Jackson says that he makes a comfortable living, but it took about three years for his company to bring in enough money to support himself full-time. Aciego’s annual income from her travel company, which occupies about two-thirds of her time, is about half of what she earned as a full-time professor. A starting salary for a scientist joining a travel firm would be slightly less than a postdoc’s, and part-time guides earn about US$100–250 a day, Rollinson estimates. For cruise lecturers, Osinubi says that $50–200 a day is typical.

And scientists must consider time spent away from home. “The travel is wearing,” Aciego says. The job might be difficult for parents; guides tend to be in their 20s and 30s, and those who stay longer often transition to roles with less travel, such as management, Rollinson says. In some cases, scientists might be able to bring family members. Osinubi knows a couple who work as lecturers on cruises together; some cruise lines might allow researchers to bring close family members for limited periods.

Researchers who don’t want a full-time travel career can dabble in one (see ‘The travel bug’). They could lead day tours at the weekend or longer trips during the summer. Rollinson says his PhD supervisors did not mind his travel guiding as long as he met research deadlines. Through the website ToursByLocals, scientists can apply to guide travellers who are visiting their area, and specify when they are available to give tours. Researchers who are already flying to a remote locale for fieldwork could tack on a nearby trip.

Although being a part-time travel guide might take time away from research, Aciego argues that it is a valid form of science communication. And the work might inform studies. For instance, Osinubi has seen cruise lecturers collect data on animal populations during voyages. Travel guides can build close relationships with locals, who could notify researchers later about environmental changes, Aciego says.

Sharing their knowledge with curious guests often reignites researchers’ passion for the subject. Jackson recalls his clients’ amazement when he brought them to a mine littered with pyrite crystals in Spain. “I can’t even describe how enthused they are,” he says. “That wonder that they experience for the first time — I just feed on that. It’s a great feeling to be able to do that for people.”

Communicating science to travellers has advantages over other outreach. People are outside their comfort zone, so the information might make a bigger impact, says Vicky Stein, who has worked as a marine biologist on whale-watching tours for Sanctuary Cruises in Moss Landing, California. And talking face-to-face makes it easier to tackle controversial issues. She says that she has had productive discussions with climate-change sceptics. “It feels like more of a real conversation,” says Stein, now a news assistant at PBS NewsHour in Arlington, Virginia. Hands-on activities can inspire children; Michael O’Clair, of Seattle, Washington, says his daughter’s interest in geology was “piqued enormously” when he took her on a mineral-collecting trip led by Jackson in 2007. She was seven years old then, and she has continued the hobby ever since.

Long trips also allow for more-nuanced discussions. Jason Goldman, a former animal-cognition researcher who is now a freelance science journalist in Los Angeles, California, and travel guide for Atlas Obscura, talks about complex conservation issues during his ecology-themed tours. “It’s a sustained, multi-day-long conversation with your audience,” he says. He hopes that the information will encourage people to change their consumer behaviour and choose responsible ecotourism operators for future trips.


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