Nature guides may soon need to be certified

Proposed NParks rule designed to raise quality of guides
Shobana Kesava, Straits Times 30 Jun 08;

BY THE end of next year, all nature guides who show local and foreign tourists around Singapore's parks and reserves could need a certificate from the Government.

The proposed rule, designed to eliminate the risk of shoddy tours and ill-informed guides, would apply to the roughly 300 green spaces under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Board (NParks).

The list includes some of Singapore's biggest and most popular parks, such as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Chek Jawa in Pulau Ubin.

NParks chief operations officer Leong Chee Chiew said: 'We would like to standardise the quality of information given out to those who are interested in nature.'

NParks said a big reason for its proposal was the rapidly growing number of eco-tourists visiting its parks and reserves. The demand has prompted a need for more people - both volunteers and professionals - to get into the guiding game.

NParks said there are 1,600 registered volunteer guides, but it is unclear how many are active. There could be hundreds of other private volunteers, according to some estimates.

Most guides are nature lovers or members of conservation groups who offer free tours. But there are a handful of professionals who charge about $100 per hour for excursions.

Eventually all those conducting eco-tours will have to go for training, though the details of the programme have not been established, said Dr Leong.

NParks' director of industry, Mr P. Teva Raj, said this will not apply to teachers and their students, or people who want to share what they know with friends.

'This is meant to be a comfort to the public who want to engage a service, so they will know that the person doing the guiding has a consistently high level of knowledge,' he said.

Seven experienced nature guides who spoke with The Straits Times agreed that training would be valuable.

But they were riled by the idea that they might require accreditation. Some see it as an insult after decades of promoting Singapore's natural heritage, while others think it goes against the spirit of volunteerism.

A guide certified by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), Mr Grant Pereira, 59, said: 'I don't see a reason for external guidelines. I am a certified guide by the STB, I am extremely good at the few guided tours I specialise in. Why is this necessary?'

It appears that not every eco-tourist needs licensed guides. Nature lover Nassera Guerroumi, 36, who is from France and came to live in Singapore two years ago, does not think certification is necessary beyond training in first aid.

'Why formalise it? People who do this love nature or they wouldn't bother sharing their passion. I don't need Latin names of plants, or someone talking all the time, I just want to be safe and know where to go to have an experience,' she said.

NParks has not come up with the cost of the proposed training programme, nor has it decided if there will be a difference in what professional guides and volunteers will have to pay for training.

Mr Raj, when pressed, said the fee would be more than $100 but would not be onerous. He said subsidies will be made available to locals.

President of the Nature Society of Singapore, Mr Shawn Lum, 45, said that, in principle, NParks' idea is excellent.

'It ensures that NParks, as a custodian of our natural heritage, has an idea of who are leading walks and if they're being done responsibly. The devil is in the detail which stakeholders would want to help the authorities pin down. But this is worth it,' he said.

Mr Raj said consultations will be held with eco-guides later this year before its plans are cast in stone.

skesava@sph.com.sg

SCHEME MAY BACKFIRE

'Some of the ideas like safety training are great, but I'm afraid the certification might become a barrier to volunteerism. Having to pay may discourage people and certificates cannot guarantee quality in content-delivery and style.'
VOLUNTEER NATURE GUIDE NOVEMBER TAN, 26

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

'I've seen exceptional guides but I've also seen guides who allow tourists to stay close to a bird's roosting site for too long, not knowing such behaviour will prompt the birds to abandon the site. This does not help the precious wildlife we have left.'
WILDLIFE CONSULTANT SUBARAJ RAJATHURAI, 45

NParks to consult Australian institute on guide training scheme
Straits Times 30 Jun 08;

THE National Parks Board (NParks) has turned to an Australian tourism body to help it establish what information guides should know about Singapore's nature reserves.

Recommendations from the government-linked William Angliss Institute Specialist Centre for Tourism are likely to form the basis of a proposed NParks scheme to accredit guides.

NParks recently put 19 of its senior nature guides and staff through a week-long review by the Australian institute that tested their knowledge.

Guides had to demonstrate their skills in guided walks at the Singapore's new HortPark, and traditional haunts such as Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, the central catchment area and the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

NParks' senior outreach officer, Ms Karen Teo, 35, went through the test, the results of which are expected in the next few weeks.

She trains some of the 1,600 volunteers registered with NParks.

'I've not really had formalised training, so it was good to find out I was doing a lot of things right and that...I could do more to promote larger campaigns, for example, against climate change,' she said.

The Australian institute said shortcomings were spotted in areas of risk management, including how to handle someone with heat stroke.

When ready, Singapore's new accreditation programme will likely set a minimum standard of general knowledge for guides and require them to know first aid.

They will also have to understand how to minimise the impact of tours on the environment.

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