Friday, August 15, 2008

Why Can't Guided Tours be Optional?

I'm just back from two weeks in Peru and hope to spend a little time blogging about the time I spent there. To start, I was particularly struck by the options in ways to visit historic sites. At the Cathedral in Cusco, you could just wander on your own, you could take a tour with a guide, use an audio tour, or, just read the simple, informative, bi-lingual labels as you wandered around. At many historic sites, including Machu Picchu, the fortress at Ollantaytambo and the Monasterio Santa Catalina in Arequipa, you had the option of taking a guided tour. At some of the sites, this was clearly the way guides made their living, and you paid them. At others, they were employed by the site and your responsibility was a tip. Some wore uniforms, others did not.

Earlier this summer, I took a tour at a new historic site here in the United States and was totally turned off by the other participants on the tour. In every room, "is this original?" and a whole host of other questions that were interesting to them, but not to me. It turned a tour from what I hoped would be an evocative, memorable experience to a painful one. By making the tours optional as in Peru, it meant that you could persue your area of interest with the guide (and bore only your traveling group, not others!)

I realize that many factors may make this kind of optional tour difficult for historic sites here in the US: these were highly visited sites, so it made sense for a number of guides to be on hand; the economics of pay are very different; and it appeared that no site worked with volunteer guides.

The experiences did reinforce for me the sense that we need to allow visitors many options for their experiences. And a confession: we didn't take a tour at any of the locations, although did lurk around the edges of several tours.

Top: Monasterio Santa Catalina, Arequipa, Peru
Bottom: The view from Machu Picchu

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