Owner and tour guide @ San Sebastian Urban Adventures. Tour leader @ Intrepid Travel. Love the Basque Country, gastronomy, pintxos, and San Sebastian.
In our line of work as tour guides, we meet travellers every single day. Our entire professional life is connected to travelling. As a consequence, we mainly see “travelling” from the point of view of the provider of the service, rather than from the position of the client. It is a great experience to change the role and put ourselves in the place of the tourist. Thanks to that we realise what the clients are looking for, so it is easier to understand their needs.
Being an Intrepid Travel tour leader and a partner of Urban Adventures in San Sebastian, I travel a lot, not only in Spain but also in other countries (this year I visited China, Mongolia, and Russia!). During all that time I am the contact person and the representative of the company, so my point of view as we travel together is a bit different from the travellers themselves. In short, I take care of different aspects that maybe the travellers don’t even know exist.
A Last Minute Deal
Today is the last day of my first holiday in almost 3 years. The decision in going abroad was taken very quickly, and was the result of some positive circumstances. By chance it appeared that both my wife Amaia and I had a spare week, and we realised it just 3 days in advance! There was no time to plan a proper trip. We decided to go to Hurghada in Egypt, as we had never visited the country before and we were missing the sun and hot temperatures so much.
We cashed in on a last minute deal, something we have never done before but had no option but to take advantage of this time, due to our budget and lack of time to prepare more. One week on the beach in a big resort may sound great for many tourists, but for us the philosophy of this way of travelling was the contrary of what we represent at work (i.e. small local hotels, small local bars, almost private tours instead of big coaches with 40 people on board). At the beginning we were lost and disoriented, and I felt like it was not responsible tourism at all. Nonetheless, now, after one week, I consider this experience as a great lesson. It helped me realise the quality that Urban Adventures and Intrepid Travel gives to its clients.
Joining a Big Group Tour
Once in Egypt, we spent a lot of time deliberating the tours we should take. Many operators weren’t travelling to Cairo because of the political situation, and our tour operator was even claiming that any company who would take us there would be trying to cheat us. We didn’t see this as strictly true, but nevertheless ended up booking a tour to Luxor. With this tour, we could experience a kind of travelling that we’re not used to; big groups following a distant tour guide who focuses on factual information. We weren’t sure what to expect exactly, but thought it could be an interesting perspective.
It was a change for us, and found it disappointing that we weren’t shown any local interaction or real experiences. For example, we were taken to local workshops to see handmade crafts, but instead of the focus being on how the products were made and their role in the community, we were simply pushed to buy. It didn’t take us long to become tired and fed up, so much so that we decided to leave the tour, in the hopes that we could find something different to create some better memories of our precious time away.
Finding Local Experiences in Cairo
Regardless of warnings, we decided to head to Cairo. We took a look at TripAdvisor, and chose one of the highest rated companies to travel to Cairo with from where we were. For €105 per person they took us to Cairo by private car (4.5 hours driving, one way) and provided a professional tour guide while we were there, as well as lunch. In hindsight, the price wasn’t bad at all, and the service was great, but it was still not exactly what we expected. The guide had some in-depth knowledge about the Pharaohs and the Pyramids, and was keen to show us some classic sights such as the Egyptian Museum. When we told him that we’d rather go to a local neighbourhood and see what average Egyptians are like, he couldn’t understand. As it was a private tour, he ended up doing as we wished, but couldn’t get his head around the idea that we would rather see local life than learn about classic Egyptian tales. We appreciated his knowledge on these subjects, of course, but we much prefer a more local experience.
After a lot of insisting, he finally understood what we wanted from the tour. We had a kofta lunch at a local bar, drank sugar cane juice in a local store where we were invited to go into the back of the shop to see how the juice was made, sipped coffee in a typical coffee shop with a sheesha experience (we are not smokers, simply tourists who wanted to try it once!), walked through a typical neighbourhood and visited their local market, and to finish, had some interesting conversations about everyday life in Egypt. In the end, the tour guide confessed that he liked this way of showing tourists his city, but admitted that we were his first clients to ever expect this kind of information.
A Lesson and Change in Perspective
Even though it’s been totally different to our lifestyle and travelling philosophy, this holiday has been a great lesson for both us. It let us realise the quality that small group tour operators such Urban Adventures and Intrepid Travel give to their clients. It also helped us realise that the decision of joining Urban Adventures as partners was the correct one, especially if we want to show the Basque culture to foreign travellers in a respectful way towards the locals.
Finally, since we should always look to the positive side of each experience, we want to end with the following reflection: even if the group trip was not the best experience for us, we decided to treat it as a means of research in order to improve the product we offer in San Sebastian. We also realised the incalculable value of preserving and respecting each culture and of showing visitors the culture as it is really is lived by locals, not through a production organised to attract tourists.