Guest blog – Local tours for local people… by Ian Parsons

I read the recent comments about wildlife tour companies and Iceland, following a blog on the Birdfair that Mark then converted into a blog, with interest (see also further later comments). I run a small wildlife tour business myself and therefore found it particularly relevant to what I do. I would like to point out that I don’t run tours to Iceland, but then it would be strange if I did as I specialise in running tours to Extremadura in Spain, so Iceland would be a bit of a stretch.

Firstly, well done Linda, your comments certainly made me think and others too, judging by the response. I was sort of aware that some form of whale killing went on in Iceland, but was completely unaware of the extent of it, so thank you for pointing it out.

I would like to add my comments about another aspect of wildlife tours that I feel strongly about, it isn’t as emotive as whale hunting, but it is important.

Many tours to foreign climes land at the airport, their guide or guides flying out with them, they then hire a minibus and travel to their large hotel that is part of a chain of hotels owned by multinational shareholders etc.  All the meals are provided for by the hotel, maximising profits for both the hotel owners (whoever they may be) and the tour company. Apart from a few souvenirs and the odd postcard from a local shop, very little money generated from the tour goes directly in to the local economy itself.

Not all tour companies are like this of course, but some are. I have always ensured that the money I generate from running tours goes in to the local economy wherever possible, I have always felt that this is important. In the town where my clients stay, I had two options for hotel accommodation, one was a local family run hotel, the other was a large multinational hotel chain. I chose the local family one.

It was an easy choice for me, I had known the family for a few years and, as I was living in Extremadura permanently at that point, it was very easy for me to arrange. In the first two years of running the business (2012 and 2013) I ran lots more tours than I choose to do now, therefore I had a wider cross section of clients at the beginning of the business than I do now. Their feedback was interesting.

The vast majority of them loved the hotel and its very Extremaduran style (a bit different to the global incorporated style of chain hotels!), but I did have a couple of people that would have preferred the larger multinational one. They didn’t like the fact that everything was in Spanish (the multinational has English speaking staff), they didn’t like the fact that the television only had Spanish channels on it (you can get CNN at the multinational!) and they didn’t like the fact that the food was all Spanish etc, etc.

Now the obvious response to make to these comments is along the lines of ‘Why did you bother coming to Spain!’ etc. But these were my clients and they had paid good money, so you listen to what they say and then you balance it with what the vast majority of the clients had said about the hotel (they loved it). I did change the website to emphasise that the hotel was a local family run one and that I felt it important that the money went directly into the local economy and since then, no one has wished for a more standardised (English) hotel.

As a side note, I did offer to translate the menu, but this was difficult as it changes daily and Santi (one of the owners) was adamant that he could do it. Santi’s translations have since become legendary, with such culinary delights as Chorizo with Roof Tiles, Lentils with Redcoats (do Butlins know?) and this year, Pork with Wedding Cake!

Along with using the hotel, we also use another local restaurant in a nearby town and numerous local bars and cafés whilst out birding, I try wherever possible to put the money into the local businesses.

Why is it important that the money goes directly into the local economy? Well, apart from the ethical reason, I feel it is important for the local community to understand that ‘their’ wildlife brings money into the local economy, that ‘their’ wildlife has a value to them. When I first started running the tours, Santi and his extended family had no interest in the fantastic wildlife in and around their town, now they have a financial stake in it.

He may still get confused with Snowy Owls and Barn Owls (he once insisted to some of the clients that he saw Snowy Owls all the time – quite an interesting record for Extremadura!) but he is a shrewd enough business person to know that without the wildlife, he would lose business. Wildlife pays. Spanish families can have lots of influence at the local level, it is their decisions that have an impact on the habitat and wildlife of the area, they are more likely to want to protect it, and even improve it, if they have a stake in it.

So, if you are off to Birdfair and you are going to ask the tour operators about going to Iceland etc, why don’t you also ask them where your money goes as well? Does it go directly into the local economy, in to local family run businesses or does it disappear into large chains and multinationals? Do the guides live out there and pay the taxes etc that they have to? How is your money going to contribute to helping the local community understand the true value of ‘their’ wildlife?

I am always happy to answer these types of question, is your tour company?

PS You won’t see me at Birdfair, our tours are minibus free with a maximum of 4 participants, this means it is harder for me to absorb the cost of having a stand at the Birdfair – I would have to add it on to my clients bill, which is something I don’t want to do. I am also in the fortunate position of not having to look for clients, I am already fully booked up to part way through 2020, it must be Santi’s menus that do it!

This is Ian’s thirteenth Guest Blog here and you can access all the others through the Guest Blog Archive – click here.

Ian’s book, A Tree Miscellany, was reviewed here.

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7 Replies to “Guest blog – Local tours for local people… by Ian Parsons”

  1. I was in Extremadura this year. I looked at the birds with wonder (without much knowledge) and the small amount of wildlife I saw, but I was touring round the perimeter on a mountain bike. I stayed in small hotels the whole time apart from my 2 days day near the airport. I can confirm that many of the 30 or so small hotels were excellent, with great food. The average price I paid was around 25€ per night but I spent more than that on food, which is also a pleasure of mine. I can strongly recommend the region.
    I confess I'd still like to go to Iceland, although I'm well aware of the issues.
    Perhaps I'm not really an activist?

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  2. Lead a group to Langholm last night to watch Hen Harriers and Merlin + lots of other goodies. Langholm is the best site in Britain to watch many upland raptors. The 29000 acres has just had £3.5million spent on it with not one penny going towards encouraging Wildlife Tourism. Twenty minutes from a major motorway and a town that is dying! You don't have to go abroad to see wildlife and by using Britain you can protect your wildlife and sites like Langholm for the future.

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  3. I think Ian's comments are highly relevant to the ongoing debate about trophy hunting in Africa and elsewhere. There is no doubt that very large sums of money change hands when wealthy hunters (mainly from the USA) travel to Africa to kill big game. The important question is not 'how much money is involved' but rather 'where does it go to?"
    Of course, some of it benefits local people and local wildlife, but I suspect the amounts are often wildly overstated.

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  4. I agree totally with your opinion that as much money as possible should go to the local economy on birding tours abroad. I go on several overseas tours within the Western Palearctic each year but cannot remember staying in a 'chain' hotel, they have all been small private hotels and all very good too. So not all overseas birding tour operators use 'chain' hotels. Perhaps outside of the WP is different.

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    1. I think it depends on the location. In much of the WP there are simply no 'chain' hotels close to the best wildlife sites. The big chain hotels are sited like McDonalds, Tesco and Kwik-fit using algorithms and geographic information system (GIS) data to assess the area's potential footfall and that's usually negatively correlated with wildlife interest.
      I expect that in places like Nepal, India or Kenya the large chains are often the only ones able to offer the required facilities. When leading tours in Italy, Slovenia & Croatia we only use local hotels and farm tourism facilities, eating out in local restaurants where possible and even use a small, local minibus hire company (ATET) rather than the multinationals which fire a low quote on the price comparison sites and then proceed to add a host of extras that would make Michael O'Leary blush!

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  5. I would always prefer a local hotel over a bland chain, and a local restaurant over "international cuisine". Like a lot of people, I'm interested in wildlife, but I want to sample different food and local hospitality too.

    I suspect that Ian's approach makes good business sense all round. If only I could afford to go on a birding tour with a professional guide!

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  6. I'm involved in editing and writing Crossbill Guidebooks (which introduce the reader to wildlife 'hotspots' across Europe). I confess that there is a volume on Iceland and further that when helping to edit the guide I never thought to flag up any concern regarding whether the place should be visited as they permitted whaling. Perhaps I should have although I'm unsure whether doing so would make much of a difference. However, I'm pleased to say part of the ethos of the guides is not only for people to understand the environment (and culture) they're experiencing but to encourage them to use facilities (local restaurants, etc) that put money directly into the economy of these areas.

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