Work Abroad Leading Adventure Tours
How to Make Your Trips Pay
Leading a tour in Machu Picchu.
When I tell people what I do for a living, their reaction is almost always the same. "You're so lucky," they would say, or "You've got my dream job." In the last four years as an adventure tour leader, I have led tours in over fifteen countries. I have taken groups hiking and rafting in Patagonia, elephant riding in Vietnam, and camping in Peru. I have guided camel riding trips in Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco, and recently I steered a jeep safari across the Tibetan plateau to Lhasa.
I have to lead forays closer to home, some gentle rambles in Spain, Greece, and Turkey, and an overland train journey from London to Damascus. In the process, I have made hundreds of new friends, learned a language, and saved a tidy sum.
So I can see their point. In many ways, I do have a "dream job." However, luck has very little to do with it.
The Adventure Travel Industry
The adventure travel industry has ballooned in recent years as more and more people are turning their backs on the beach holidays of old and opting instead to hike the Inca Trail, climb Mount Sinai, or cross the Sahara on the back of a camel.
While many throw on a backpack and hit the road, for those with time constraints or who are concerned about traveling alone, signing up with a small group tour operator is often the way to go.
Traveling this way has other significant benefits as well. Tour operators will organize almost every detail of your trip, from hotels and transportation to guides and porters, saving you the time and energy required to do so yourself.
With their expertise and contacts in the region, tour operators can often offer more attractive, "off the beaten track" itineraries and can access areas otherwise off-limits to the independent traveler.
As a passenger on a tour, you'll meet a group of like-minded individuals to share your experience and have plenty of backup should you be robbed, a civil war breaks out, or a tsunami hits.
The tours are designed around a set itinerary in a specific geographic region, sometimes in a single country but often passing through many neighboring countries. Where mainstream tour operators will focus on famous sites, resorts, and upmarket hotels and restaurants, adventure tour operators spend time in places that offer real insight into local life, participate in activities that aren't strictly relaxing, and travel in small groups of about 16 people.
Small group tours began in the1960s with organized hiking trips to Nepal and overland truck journeys following classic routes like London to Kathmandu, the trips were demanding, and facilities were basic.
However, after 50+ years of doing such tours, operators work in almost every feasible destination that is not otherwise war-torn or blacklisted by the foreign office. Small group tours go to Antarctica, Iran, Cambodia, Vietnam, and more conventional destinations like Spain, Australia, or the Seychelles.
While many specialist agencies have their niche, the big operators now offer a comprehensive package, including walking, cycling, kayaking, camping, cultural immersion, or all of the above. Now tours offer something for everyone, and different grades from budget to luxury to suit every traveler's need.
The Tour Leader
Tours operate the world over, and every tour needs a leader.
The possibilities are endless as an adventure tour leader, especially working for the larger companies that offer the most comprehensive range of tours. Some tour leaders are eternal seekers of new experiences, jumping from country to country and trying to see as much as possible during their careers. Others find something, or somewhere they love and decide to stick to it, becoming experts in their chosen field.
But whether it be hiking and kayaking, leading luxury cultural tours, being a Middle East specialist, or an expert in all things Latin American, the basic tenets of tour guiding are almost the same.
A tour leader is a guide, babysitter, teacher, and entertainer all rolled into one. As the only non-paying customer on the tour, the entire responsibility of the group is yours. From their arrival at the airport on day one to checking them in weeks later for their return flight, you will guide them through the tour itinerary, see that the group develops chemistry, and ensure that all participants return home in one piece, with a bunch of new experiences and an address book full of new friends.
From briefing them on local culture, religion, history, or any other aspect of the region that provokes their interest to entertaining the group over dinner, the role of the tour leader is varied. Moreover, with your boss very seldom in the same country, let alone the same city, to look over your shoulder, there is more autonomy than you could shake at with a hiking stick.
It is exotic, but tour leading is also challenging work. Usually, you will spend several months in a region leading back-to-back tours without a single day off. You'll be the first one up in the morning and the last one to get to bed at night, and when things don't go as planned (not necessarily due to any fault of the tour leader), the clients will look to you to voice their complaints. You will lose touch with friends and family back home and become all too familiar with living out of a hotel room. You unpack and repack all your possessions into a single backpack almost daily.
But tour leading can be the most rewarding job for those with enough patience and energy. Moreover, with all your expenses usually included or otherwise free, you can save money like never before.
Application and Qualifications
Most tour leaders work two to three years before they can expect to move on, settle down, or burn out with exhaustion. As a result, adventure tour operators are constantly recruiting to accommodate turnover. The application procedure is much like any other. Most tour operators have pages about this process and a downloadable application form on their website.
The form leads to an interview, which, if successful, leads to a training period within the home country. The training can take many forms, but the idea is that your potential employers can see how you interact with others and how you perform under various, often-stressful scenarios. The final stage of your training occurs abroad, shadowing an existing tour leader and learning the realities of life on the road.
To say that anyone can apply is not strictly true. Some tour operators do stipulate specific qualifications. For example, for some overland truck companies like Dragoman, who drive across the length and breadth of Africa, a driving license, as is a mechanical qualification, is mandatory. Other operators with claims as specialists in a particular region or activity will demand that their leaders speak the required language or are proficient in the relevant field. However, many larger companies like Exodus and Explore, which run tours worldwide, often seek able, intelligent, and resourceful individuals of all ages, backgrounds, and professions to lead their tours.
Anybody can become an adventure tour leader. Of course, it helps if you are fluent in a dozen languages, have a Ph.D. in anthropology, or have traveled to over a hundred countries. However, it is certainly not essential. Ultimately, it would help if you have a bit of common sense, travel experience, people skills, and the desire to swap the safety and security of your home country in favor of an altogether more exciting yet transient existence. The one thing you do not have to be is lucky.