KE Blog

Western leader or local guide?

By: KE Adventure Travel, posted 1st August '10

We have had a fantastic response to last month's email debate, which asked whether you preferred your holiday to have a Western leader (at additional cost) or to be locally led.

There were hundreds of responses to our July email debate and these are split approximately as follows:

42% in favour of local guides
30% for Western leaders
5% for both
23% undecided

We opened up a real 'can of worms' here and received a lot of interesting comments, some of which have been included below.

During the first decade or so of our existence, all KE groups had a KE Western leader. But, things are changing and we need to be able to compete on trip price in an increasingly competitive world. When our competitors are running trips with local leaders, we can't send a Western leader with the group without putting our holiday at a significant cost disadvantage. So, we have put more resources into training local leaders and more and more KE trips are locally led. However, where there are still issues with the quality of the available leaders, or where we are running challenging, remote or technical treks or climbs, we continue to send a Western leader with our groups.

Generally, there was agreement that tough, technical treks and climbing trips need a Western leader. Other than in the case of such trips, there was a pretty even split between those who would be happy to pay more for a Western leader and those who feel that Western leaders are unnecessary (and expensive) window dressing.

Pro local leader comments

Local approved sirdars! Nearly every western guide I've ever been with is merely in the shadow of the sirdar, in any case. Waste of money! Craig Dunderdale.

I've never had a local guide whom I didn't like or who didn't do an excellent job, so I'd prefer to pay less and go with the local guide, as long as your local guides remain highly qualified and pleasant to deal with. Tim Lovelace.

Local leader everytime, you get the experience first hand and not relayed through a third party. Mick Fenton.

Definitely local guide. We have learnt so much from local guides who have been so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their homeland. Roger and Jacky Brearley.

I prefer local leaders, one has far more interaction and insight into the country one is visiting and it is part of the holiday. OK, may be less coordination of the group, but I travel to meet the people of the country and learn about it first hand. Western leaders, in my experience, tend to impose their vision of a country, limit the ‘local' contact and do not always aid the group to gel. I have had more local than western leaders and reckon that there have been more ‘problems' with the western leaders and the group than with the locals. Caroline Higgs.

On our trip to Morocco last year we had a local guide and he was excellent. Not only did he look after the needs of the group to an extremely high standard, liaising with the mulemen, campground owners and anyone else as necessary, but we also learnt so much about Morocco and Berber culture and felt that his presence enhanced the trip immeasurably. Our only worry was that he worked too hard! Anne Brown.

I did Mts Kenya and Kilimanjaro last August, with Moses and Eddy on Mt Kenya and Onex, Peter and Danny on Kili and they couldn't have been better - a key part of the enjoyment and appreciation of the whole trip for me was having local guides, with their knowledge and experiences of the mountains, learning bits of Swahili. No westerner could possibly have done it better. Quite apart from that, surely it's good to provide local employment whenever possible. I'm not sure if KE has a hand in the training of the guides, but whoever does it, they did an excellent job for us. Rosanna Cole.

I am firmly for the use of local guides. I agree with the draw-backs you state but in my experience, the contact with local people enriches the experience more than it hinders it. It takes more effort from the traveller but the effort is worth it in most cases. M Brown.

My two previous trekking trips to Nepal were very positive experiences, both led by local Nepalese guides who were highly effective leaders. They were excellent ambassadors for their country and their knowledge of its culture and customs was a significant factor in my enjoyment of the trips. Their pride in the work they were doing to promote their country was also very evident. I do not feel that a Western leader could have done more to support and encourage all members of the group and ensure the success of these trips. Donald Vass.

Assuming that you can ensure a high quality (which I do not believe should be a problem), I would always prefer a local guide to a western leader. This is in part because I prefer to have someone who knows the area intimately, but more because I believe that western tourists have an obligation to contribute as much as possible to local communities. I have only ever had positive experiences of local tour guides and would encourage you to use as far as possible. Lucy Butler.

I think the key requirements are that the guide: - lives in the country - understands the history and culture of the country - speaks both the local language and English. All things being equal, this is likely to mean that a local guide is generally preferable. In practice, local guides tend to be very well educated, well connected, proud of their culture and heritage and very keen to showcase the best on offer to their visitors. Steve Arthurs.

Pro Western leader comments....

This first comment from Steve Derbyshire nicely puts the case for Western leaders on 'technical' trips. Following a recent trip to Uganda, Steve believes that trips should be considered on their individual merits - which is, of course, what we do.....

In February this year I was one of the participants on your 'Mountains of the Moon' trip to the Rwenzori mountains in Uganda. It was a great trip in a beautiful country with a good group of fellow travellers. The local Rwenzori guides had a fantastic knowledge of the local area, its history and the flora and fauna. The food was great and the porters were good too. My main concern is this. The local guides in my opinion did not have the required skills / knowledge and to some extent equipment to run this trip safely in terms of 'mountaineering ability'. Our western leader for this trip was Steve Stout. Steve spent a considerable amount of time teaching the local guides several important techniques - rope work and climbing etc. and he also brought out some much needed equipment e.g. ropes etc. After Steve's efforts it was possible to see that some of the local guides had taken on board to varying degrees some of what Steve had tried to teach them. I am fully aware that any trip of this nature will inherently involve varying degrees of risk and I am more than happy to take those risks to see things that otherwise it would not be possible to see and of course to feel that bit more 'alive'. I strongly feel that without Steve being our leader on this trip that the local guides could not have run the trip safely enough or smoothly enough. The success of this trip in a large part was down to Steve's leadership skills and mountaineering abilites. I would be more than prepared to pay that little bit more to have a western leader with me on a trip such as this. Steve Derbyshire.

I realise that Western leaders make trips more expensive, but there are certain trips where I feel that they are necessary and would be happy to pay more in those circumstances. Keith Hodgson.

Western leaders are great and definitely give your trips the edge over other companies. I would not regard a reduction in cost worthwhile if it meant losing the Western leaders. Jenny Black

In the case of a medical emergency it is crucial that the patient be able to communicate as clearly and comfortably as possible with the caretaker. The effectiveness of such communication should not be limited to purely verbal exchanges but encompass bodily language and the difference between what is said and not said, all of which must be interpreted through a cultural lens. In an ideal world trekkers would be equally comfortable with guides of all nationalities but I don't think as a planet we're quite there yet. Maxime Kinet.

I traveled with KE in October 2 years ago on the Ultimate Everest trek. We had western guides, but also one or two local guides. My guides, Rob Fraser and Dan Slater, were instrumental in making the trip a success for me and my friends. Rob, with his experience and knowledge of the area, served as a bridge between the local culture and western culture in a way that i am not sure a local guide would have been able to. While I understand the desire to use local guides to both keep costs down and provide jobs for locals, I would be willing to pay a bit more on a trip to have guides like Rob and Dan or in combination with a local guide. Jennifer Small.

I have to admit that one of my reasons for travelling with KE is the great leaders I have encountered. On treks without a western leader there is often a lack of group cohesion and nobody to "massage" any difficult group dynamics (pretty important on a lonely 3 week trek!). Also, I have had significant communication issues when there was a lack of western leader. This had medical implications (I am also a doctor) and led to a lot of frustration in the group, as well as "unsafe" situations. It might cost a little more, but I would choose a trek with a western leader (possibly with the local leaders) over a "local only guided" trip anytime. That is one of the reasons to travel with KE anyway, because the organisation is so good (better than the competition), even if it may mean paying a little more. Sarit Lesnik Oberstein.

Western leader definitely best. The small friendly scale of KE is best complimented by leaders who know how to make a group gel, and who are in tune with the ethos of KE. The fact that other companies have abandoned western leaders is not a reason for KE to follow. If you are just the same as other companies, why would I travel with you? James Roberts-Wray.

I would definitely vote for paying extra and having a UK leader. I've been on many trips (14 with KE !), and only occasionally not had a UK leader.  One was a KE Bolivia Climber trip with only 4 clients so (with our agreement) KE ran it with just a local leader. The local guy was technically competent and the organisation was fine, but he didn't see any need to communicate with us, or to involve us in any of his decision-making, which was sometimes dubious.  KE UK leaders do a great job of interfacing with the local guides, who accept they do have to talk to and work with the UK leader. Alan Williams.

Depends on the trip...

I think it depends on the nature of the holiday. On the most challenging treks I would prefer to have a western leader as well as local support. On more straightforward ventures, a carefully chosen local leader is fine. For example, on the Jebel Sahro trek I did with you in February, Mohammed was outstanding. His English was first rate. If a local leader is to be in charge, I think this is most important. If there is a problem, it is vital that you know that you are understood. Ian Macpherson.

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