How Malaysia’s women tour guides are paving the way for travel
For female tour guides, work can sometimes be overwhelming.
But nothing beats the satisfaction of globetrotting with – and caring for – curious tourists.

Trying to catch a connecting flight, sticking to a travel schedule and staying safe in a foreign country can be stressful for some people. But can you imagine doing all that while caring for a group of tourists?

For many women travel guides and tour leaders, navigating their way across new destinations presents its own set of unique challenges. At times, they find themselves dealing with chauvinistic clients who undermine their authority, or folks who just can’t be satisfied with anything.

Living out of a suitcase also impacts personal relationships.

All that, however, is secondary next to the joy that they derive from helping others better understand the world and have a good time on their holidays.

Elspeth Ooi travels about eight times a year for work. Photo: Elspeth Ooi

Tech savvy globetrotter

When many of her peers worked 9-to-5 jobs, Elspeth Ooi had bigger dreams in mind. Fresh out of college, she decided to join a travel agency, where she lead her first tour at the age of 22.

She has seen many parts of the world while on the job.

“When I post (travel) pictures on social media, my friends always tell me how lucky I am to be able to travel for work. But the feeling when you are on your own holiday is different from when you are travelling with clients,” she reveals.

For starters, Ooi is tasked with looking after the safety and well-being of the tour groups that she leads. And yes, that sometimes includes making sure nobody misses the plane.

“In the days leading up to a trip, I will double and triple check the itinerary. I will also call my clients and remind them to pack their passports,” she admits sheepishly.

Earlier on in her career, Ooi only travelled to Asian countries, but now, she has expanded her horizons. Ooi, 30, currently works with Apple Vacations where she supervises product management and development in Western countries.

With close to a decade of experience in the travel industry, Ooi says the newer generation of tour leaders have it easier compared to their older counterparts.

“Technology has made travel easier these days, and it has also made my job better. There are so many apps that help me get around in a new city. The Internet makes research faster too.

“I really respect my seniors who had to memorise maps in the past when they lead a tour,” Ooi says, adding that navigation and language apps are also helpful while travelling.

The downside to an increasingly connected world is that Ooi needs to stay informed and provide travellers with information that surpasses those found on Google.

“Some travellers will check out a place online before a trip, so I need to make sure I am well prepared,” she says.

But while technology is great, common sense remains a tour leader’s biggest ally.

Ooi says being a tour leader gives her the opportunity to meet many people and forge friendships. Photo: Elspeth Ooi

Ooi says a tour leader needs to be independent and be able to overcome pressure. Ooi recounts how she had to deal with the sudden death of a client due to heart attack during a tour in Bangkok, Thailand.

“I cried so much when I got the news, but I had the responsibility to ensure the family and authorities are well informed,” she explains, detailing how she contacted the Malaysian embassy there and arranged for the body to be flown home.

“As tour leaders and managers, we need to be able to overcome pressures. We also need to be alert as we are looking out for a big group of people,” says Ooi, who has led tour groups with 40 people.

Dealing with a plethora of personalities also means that Ooi has to be extra sensitive to moods and feelings.

“Many customers go on holidays with travel agents because they trust us to care for them during the trip. I need to be a good listener and communicator,” she reveals, adding that she considers many past clients friends now.

On average, Ooi travels about eight times a year for work, with each trip lasting about two weeks. She admits that living out of a suitcase can be tough for women tour leaders as sometimes they will miss special occasions with loved ones back home.

“When I first started, my senior colleagues tell me that if I find a boyfriend – I should quickly marry him,” she jokes.

“Your partner needs to be very understanding and be comfortable with your travel schedule,” adds Ooi, who will be tying the knot soon.

Moving forward, she foresees that she will remain in the profession for a very long time.

“In many other jobs, you will just sit in the office all day. I want to continue doing what I do and discover something new every time I travel.”

Being a tour leader means that Ooi gets the chance to travel to many parts of the world and see iconic sights. Photo: Elspeth Ooi

Published in STAR 2, 9 MAC 2019