Can apps replace tourist guides?

Dieter Holle, Chief Information Officer at Tourvest Destination Management
Dieter Holle, Chief Information Officer at Tourvest Destination Management

In an era of mobile apps that can guide travellers through sites and destinations, are tourist guides redundant? By Tessa Reed.

Many museums offer portable audio devices, preloaded with applications to take guests through the museum while providing relevant information. Mobile apps are available to provide guided audio tours of popular cities. There are also mobile apps to help tourists put together itineraries themselves. But where does this leave tourist guides?

Apps have a number of advantages. For example, Dieter Holle, Chief Information Officer at Tourvest Destination Management, says the information provided is likely to be correct and well researched. “They deliver content consistently and, if carefully set up, are likely to be more factually accurate,” he says, adding that they are also cost effective.

Lee Luizinho, Tourvest Destination  Management Touring and Guides Manager
Lee Luizinho, Tourvest Destination Management Touring and Guides Manager

Likewise, Tourvest Destination Management Touring and Guides Manager, Lee Luizinho, points out that apps provide a great source of content that is related to an attraction or destination to mobile users. Particularly, he says, apps that are built for attractions usually consist of content that is rich enough to form an overview or perspective on the relevance of the site and the history surrounding it. “They definitely have their place in travel and specifically aid self-drive travellers to experience what the site or city has to offer.”

Another advantage of apps is that they allow visitors to visit an attraction at their own pace, says Sabine Lehmann, MD at Table Mountain Aerial Cableway, who explains that visitors can skip points or areas that they are not interested in, tailor-making their experience. “Anything that aids and enhances the visitor experience is a good thing. The ideal app would be something that allows for some interaction amongst family members and caters for kids and adults at the same time.”

Sabine Lehmann, MD at Table Mountain Aerial Cableway
Sabine Lehmann, MD at Table Mountain Aerial Cableway

Both Lehmann and Christiaan Steyn, Marketing Manager at Drifters Adventours, point out that apps come with the ability to cope with large number of visitors at the same time and are often available in a number of languages.

Applications also come with the advantage of allowing users to share their experience, as Luizinho points out: “[Apps] generally include opportunities for users to be able to share or comment on experiences within their own social networks.” He adds that mobile apps give travellers the ability to receive comment or feedback from existing collaborators (existing users of the app), which allows them to form a ‘bigger picture’ as to what the site, attraction or city has to offer. “There’s definitely a sense of excitement that travellers experience in their ability to share their experiences, either through the use of the app or from the app itself.”

Christiaan Steyn, Marketing Manager at Drifters Adventours
Christiaan Steyn, Marketing Manager at Drifters Adventours

Despite the many advantages of apps, there seems to be consensus that tourist guides offer a richer experience.  Jenny Briscoe, CEO at Gold Class Guides, and Lehmann both point out that a guide’s interpretation of a site will always add value to a museum or attraction. Lehmann adds that tourist guides offer personal interaction and the opportunity to engage with a local, something increasingly desired by travellers.

Commenting on this point, Luizinho argues that tourist guides are also particularly relevant to South Africa. “Part of the South African attraction is its people and culture and what better way to explore the diversity of our country than through the guidance of someone who is qualified to provide the information, and charismatic enough to deliver an unforgettable experience,” he says.

“The personal interaction with people is far better and far more interactive,” says Briscoe, adding that travellers are able to ask guides questions and get a response. The ability to answer questions is seen as advantage guides have over apps. Says Steyn: “As people receive information they will always have some follow-up questions that they will not necessarily be able to get from an app.”

Furthermore, while apps are seen as advantageous because of the amount of technical detail they can offer travellers, Briscoe argues that guides offer more than this by being able to offer a personal take and give additional anecdotal information. “It is so much more fulfilling to go with a guide that can actually go along and explain. It is not just the technical details that one gets perhaps on an instrument, but the anecdotes that go with it and it is also the personality and the passion that come through with a person,” she says.

Even as efficiency is seen as one of the advantages, Briscoe points out that having tourist guides will help the industry create jobs. She uses the example of Cypress, which has site guides at most significant sites. Briscoe points out that South Africa has many attractions where site guides would be able to enrich the tourist’s experience and make the destination more attractive to self drive tourists.

“It’s easy to assume technology is the answer to many challenges and we have to remember that most leisure travellers wish to somehow interact with a local in some shape or form,” says Holle. “Purely being serviced by vending machines, apps and automated processes could make the world we are seeking to explore on our travels a rather mundane place.”

Luizinho also argues that apps are relatively static compared with the type of interaction that a traveller would have with a tourist guide. “There is so much more information that you can derive from a tourist guide that you simply cannot obtain from an app,” he says. “Things like personality, charisma, experience, and the element of personalising the experience and information for the traveller are the main benefits of having a tourist guide on tour.”

While apps can aid self-drive tourists, guides still play a pivotal role for group tours. “Tourist guides are hosts throughout tours and expert problem solvers,” says Luizinho. “Due to their proximity with the travel business, they usually have large networks of people they can rely on to accommodate requests – however special they may be.” Lehmann also points out that guides are better able to adapt an experience. “Guides should be able to read a group and change their tour accordingly,” she says.

Luizinho adds that tourist guides are also trained in first aid and, therefore, have the basics in order to deal with real-world situations. Briscoe also highlights the importance of training. “Training is key to quality and people would like a quality experience and are happy to pay for a quality experience,” says Briscoe. Speaking on the importance of training, Holle says: “Apps may replace mainstream routine physical guides at attractions such as museums, however, nothing will ever beat the live commentary delivered by a passionate expert on the subject.”

While apps are viewed as cost effective, both Briscoe and Holle argue that guiding can provide much-needed employment.

Despite the rich experience that guides offer, apps are here to stay. Luizinho suggests that the focus should, therefore, be on how technology is embraced within the travel experience and used to supplement it. Likewise, Holle says: “I actually enjoyed using an app in combination with live guide commentary, as it works well to contextualise the information, especially where different opinions apply as a result of how history is recorded.”

Lehmann suggests that some travellers will opt for apps while other will choose guides but says apps cannot replace guides because they offer a different experience. “The tourist guide, ideally, is much more of a personal interaction and perhaps is able to give a more personal viewpoint and background to the site.” She says the one does not preclude the other. “The problem for attraction managers is finding the time and budget to accommodate as many different versions as possible and to keep all of these versions up to date.”

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