China's booming tourism industry with its legions of tailored and themed tours, is driving rampant demand for professional tour guides around the world, especially those with creativity, comprehensive knowledge of visit-worthy places and good interpersonal and language skills.
One who knows the career well is Lei Lei, a tour guide from Hubei province, who has been working and living in Paris for 13 years.
In 2006, Lei went to France to do a postgraduate course in international trade. But after graduation, the global financial crisis made it extremely hard for him to find work. A friend persuaded Lei to become a registered tour guide on Ctrip, China's largest online travel agency.
"Starting from picking-up and taking tourists to airports, I began to gradually master multiple skills of being a tour guide. To provide better services, I got a French driver's license and a local tour guide certificate," Lei said.
Each month, he can earn about 3,000 euros ($3,440), much more than he can from other various part-time jobs.
What really helped his career take off, however, was two big shifts in the global tourist market. First, more Chinese tourists began heading to Europe. The number of Chinese tourists to Europe doubled in the second quarter of 2018, compared to the previous year, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
The second fact is that more Chinese are switching from holidaying as a part of a group tour to traveling independently.
"More and more tourists are not satisfied with glancing over sightseeing spots quickly with a tour group. They want to know more interesting stories and cultures. So more Chinese tourists favor booking a local tour guide and hearing more about local customs and events," Lei said.
As part of his job, Lei helps tourists to book the most exotic hotels and take them to enjoy the best-rated food. He also helps solve tourist's problems like sickness and lost luggage. His professionalism and good reputation has brought more customers, enough for him to establish his own tourism company.
Meanwhile, 23-year-old Liu Mengxia, is another registered tour guide on Ctrip. Having decided she doesn't like jobs with fixed hours, or in one place, she opted for the tourist industry, and gained her tour guide certificate in China in 2015.
After just three years, she has her own tour guide team, including operations and customer service staff. During busy seasons, she can receive 10 orders a day.
Currently, there are more than 5,000 people registered as domestic tour guides on Ctrip in China, and 70 percent of them are located in smaller cities. The average service fees of a tour guide is around 300 yuan ($44.14) to 400 yuan per day, and their average monthly salary is around 8,000 yuan－often higher than average local salaries, Ctrip said.
Last year, Ctrip said it plans to provide more support to entrepreneurs and startups, and local tour guides stand as an important part of that strategy. It noted the micro firms have location advantages and flexibilities, but lack customers, financial support, and brand marketing channels.
Ctrip said it will offer more business opportunities and better platforms for local tour guide groups, and give more booking orders to top-rated guides. Last year, the company provided more than 500,000 orders and 2 million customers to registered individual tour guides.
Meanwhile, travel agents who can make customized trips as per travelers' needs, has become a new popular occupation for young Chinese. Salaries for top performers can reach between 30,000 yuan and 40,000 yuan a month, said Ctrip.