Work Abroad Leading Adventure Tours
How to Make Your Trips Pay
Article and photo by Tariq El Kashef
Resources updated 10/21/2019 by Transitions Abroad
Leading a tour in Machu Picchu.
When I tell people what I do for 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 working as an adventure tour leader I have lead tours in over fifteen different 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 lead forays closer to home too, some gentle rambles in Spain, Greece, and Turkey, as well as 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 really 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 simply throw on a backpack and hit the road, for those with time constraints, or those concerned about traveling alone, signing up with a small group tour operator is often the way to go.
Traveling this way has other important 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 interesting, "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 with whom to share your experience, and have plenty of backup should you be robbed, a civil war breaks out, or a tsunami hits.
The tours themselves are designed around a set itinerary in a specific geographic region, sometimes in a single country, but often passing through a number of 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, take part in activities which aren’t strictly relaxing, and travel in small groups of no more than about 16 people.
When small group tours first 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, some 50+ years on tours operate in just about every feasible destination that is not otherwise war-torn or blacklisted by the foreign office. Antarctica, Iran, Cambodia, and Vietnam, as well as much more conventional destinations like Spain, Australia, or the Seychelles.
While many specialist agencies have their niche, the big operators now offer a comprehensive package, whether that includes 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 widest range of tours. Some tour leaders are endless seekers of new experiences, jumping from country to country trying to see as much as possible during their career. Others find something, or rather somewhere they love and decide to stick to it, becoming experts in their chosen field.
But whether it be hiking and kayaking, or leading luxury cultural tours, being a Middle East specialist, or an expert in all things Latin American, the basic tenets of tour leading are almost exactly 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 a varied one. 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 a hiking stick at.
It is exotic, but tour leading is also very hard 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 on an almost daily basis.
But for those with enough patience and energy, tour leading can be the most rewarding job in the world. Moreover, with all your expenses usually included or otherwise free, you will have the opportunity to save money like never before.
Application and Qualifications
Most tour leaders usually work two to three years before they are expected to move on, settle down, or burn out with exhaustion. As a resulrt, adventure tour operators are always recruiting to accommodate turnover. The application procedure is much like any other. Most tour operators have pages on their website pertaining to this process, and/or a downloadable application form.
The form leads to an interview, which if successful leads to a training period within the home country. This 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 takes place 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 certain qualifications. For example, some of the overland truck companies like Dragoman, who drive across the length and breadth of Africa, a driving license is mandatory and/or a mechanical qualification. Other operators with claims as specialists in a certain region or activity will demand that their leaders speak the required language or are proficient in the relevant field. However, many of the larger companies like Exodus and Explore, who run tours worldwide are more often than not seeking 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, what you need is 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 interesting yet transient existence. The one thing you do not have to be is lucky.
Tariq El Kashef is a writer,
photographer, tour leader and all around travel aficionado.