A (SHORT) HISTORY OF POLAR TOURISM AND QUALIFICATIONS
Polar Guides are at the peak of the polar tourism experience (we use the word ‘guide’ to encompass any field staff, lecturers, specialist excursion experts and any personnel who work in the field with clients). They work at a vital cross-roads providing: valuable and interesting information and stories about the landscapes and wildlife, skilled safety management for each experience and the indefinable human qualities of fun, humour and passion for these places that keeps clients coming back. This is seen time and time again and part of the reason why polar tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of the travel industry.
The concept of minimum standards of operation for polar guides isn’t new and people had tried to create programs around a few key skill areas over the years only to be stymied by lack of support from key stakeholders, lack of funding, lack of experience in creating an international education system and simply lack of time to see such an ambitious project gain traction. And despite a large, and increasing, number of operators, exponentially increasing customer numbers and increased concern over environmental and safety considerations there had never been an attempt to create a full array of industry standards for minimum skills competency for a polar guide.
There are a range of national qualifications for land-based polar tourism activities across northern polar countries but these frameworks haven’t worked across international borders.
Ship-based tourism is regulated, on ships, by International Maritime law (the IMO International Maritime Organisation 1978 Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention (STCW) but this doesn’t address field-craft for guides running excursions. Mass market ship-based polar tourism has never had minimum standards requirements for guides, lecturers, interpreters, and field staff in core skill sets (except First Aid training). Some companies train to and have set, their own standards. This works for them but doesn’t foster a forum or community for discussion, transparency, or creating industry-wide norms that benefit not only the companies but regulatory bodies, staff, clients, and the environment alike.
Broader regulation does exist but is used extensively in areas like:
- Technical standards for specific sub-skills (sea kayaking, scuba-diving, skiing, snow-shoeing, mountaineering) In general, a greater need and focus on customer service differentiates Polar Guiding from Outdoor Education Teachers, Instructors and Adventure Guides. Customer service techniques for polar guides balance service with safety and environmental protocols designed specifically for polar regions.
- Hospitality and guest services standards,
- Environmental regulations for environmental behaviour and site specific guidelines (IAATO/AECO site specific guidelines).
- Sovereign laws for use of firearms.
Like fitting a square peg in a round hole, using external qualification systems (Maritime qualifications, Royal Yachting Association, Coastguard and Maritime small boat operators, National Outdoor certificates etc) to achieve some manner of minimum skill standard was at best a stopgap measure. These external systems themselves are well established and good for what they are designed for, but none of them can examine to the specific requirements of a guide in the polar environment.
Despite all these other systems, in 2017 there was still the option to self-regulate in terms of minimum standards. Self-regulation within a framework of a non-partisan professional association was always going to be a much cheaper and preferable option for all stakeholders and offered an opportunity to really change the game in polar tourism. The PTGA was borne out of the IAATO/AECO Field Staff Conference in Toronto in 2015. During sessions and discussions, there were calls for IAATO/AECO (Trade Associations) to “do something about standards”. A group of veteran guides started discussing the possibility and began drafting core competencies and syllabi and passing these around for comment. The response was positive and encouraged them to commit to, and create a legal Professional Industry Association and begin the process of building the complex structure of the emergent Polar Tourism Guides Association. This association was legally registered in 2017.
We have no doubt the future will be about providing professional services to all segments of the polar tourism market while at the same time appeasing regulatory bodies, actively preserving the environments we work in, and creating ambassadors out of the clients who venture into this weird and wonderful polar world.