TS-CRC Student project - Protectors and Interpreters of the Outback: A Study of the Emerging Occupation of the Savannah Guide

Savannah Guides at a training school

Savannah Guides meet for one of their twice-yearly schools
Photo: Kathryn Thorburn

About Savannah Guides

Savannah Guides is a network of professional tour guides who aims to educate visitors through its guides and tourism sites about the environmental conditions of the tropical savannas of northern Australia. It was established as a non-profit company in 1988 by John Courtenay, the Chief Executive Officer of the Gulf Local Authorities Development Association (GLADA) at the time.

Members were initially drawn from local communities within the Gulf Savannah but the network has since expanded to encompass the tropical savannas of northern Australia.

A group of tourists sets off on the Normanton River in the Gulf

A group of sets off on a river tour at Normanton in the Gulf country. The river is famous for its crocodiles ...
Photo: Wendy Hillman


Travelling to the Savannah Guide Schools have been both enjoyable and challenging. The schools I've attended were held in Normanton–Croydon (Qld), Katherine (NT) and the Mareeba Wetlands (Qld). One of the main challenges was getting to the Mareeba Wetlands in between cyclones. I have also travelled to Longreach to attend a School there as well as participating in several of the Guides' own ecotours which added enriched and comprehensive data to my research focus.

I have forged an extremely beneficial link with the Savannah Guides through my research of their group. They are a co-operative and friendly organisation. Through this interaction I have also made deeper friendships with some of the members. I am always warmly welcomed by them, even if I turn up for a tour unexpectedly. They are all wonderful people.

James Cook University, Townsville. Completed.

Wendy Hillman

Summary | About Savannah Guides | Key research questions | Study area | Research methods | Supervisors | References | More information |


This study explores salient issues related to the perceived professionalisation of a collective group of tourism business individuals called Savannah Guides. The guides’ philosophy is based on a collective sense of identity and recognition as an exclusive ecotourism organisation. This has been used as a means of positioning themselves in the competitive ecotourism market. The organisation has regimented levels of attainment and can be considered as quasi-militaristic in its orientation. The guides have implemented various forms of assessment and training which serve as a measurement of competency and uniformity.

The guides present themselves to the public mainly through their individual tourism businesses. Emotional labour is one of the ways they interact with the public on their tours. They incorporate the emotional side of their interpretive work into their tourist products and tours, through the ways they impart both education and knowledge to the tourists. Their educative and cultural expertise is also informed by usage of emotional labour.

Concern for, and an extensive knowledge of the environment, are also components of their specialised form of guiding. Many of the guides see work in the ecotourism industry as a form of alternative employment, and as an option to the decline in rural employment. Others perceive a niche for this type of tourism and embrace the opportunity. This thesis details the guides’ way of life as individuals within the Savannah Guides organisation and the ecotourist industry.

Key research questions

The aim of this study is to investigate the occupation of the ecotour guides as workers, the relationship between ecotour guides, interpretation of guided tours and ecotourism practices and how they relate to, and are utilised by tourists, as part of an expanding service economy.

Reference studies that provide a comparative basis for investigation of Savannah Guide enterprises in the tourist industry sector within Tropical Savannas will be examined. First, these will examine the status, role and scope of Savannah Guides within Tropical Savannas. Second, Enterprise Level Ecotourism case studies will be carried out. These will include an in-depth study of the Savannah Guides organisation. Third, individual Guides will be investigated. This section of the study will endeavour to ascertain a profile of individual Guides and their roles, perceptions and values, together with their own expressions of these components in terms of conducting guided ecotours.

Other important questions may be:

  • What do the Savannah Guides do?
  • What is significant about the discourse of the Savannah Guides? How do they acquire their knowledge, and from what source?
  • What is the philosophy of the organisation? What are the inclusive and exclusive practices of the organisation?
  • How do they present themselves to the public? To what extent do their values fit within the wider discourse on environmentalism and ecotourism?
  • Why are they drawn to ecotour guiding as an occupation?

Study area

The research is being undertaken within and adjacent to the tropical savanna area of northern Australia: from northern Queensland, across to the Northern Territory and possibly also into the Kimberley Region of Western Australia, i.e., from Cape York to Broome. More specifically these sites will include, travelling from east to west: Undara Lava Tubes, Tyrconnell Historic Goldmine, Chillagoe, Cobbold Gorge, Adel's Grove, Lawn Hill, Hell's Gate, Borroloola and Katherine. The study also includes mobile operators of the Savannah Guides association such as Wilderness Challenge, Far Out Adventures and Odyssey Safaris.

Research methods

The research is undertaken using qualitative research techniques such as participant observation and in-depth interviewing. Interaction with the subject group is an ongoing process, carried out over the entire timeframe of the candidature.

To date, little research has been carried out covering this subject field and this study will add an insightful and significant contribution to the areas of sociology of tourism, ecotourism, tour guides and guided tours.

The project contributes to two themes within TS-CRC. These are Ecosystem Management and Human Capability Development. The Ecosystem Management section encompasses interrelationships between my subject group, the Savannah Guides, and the environment. This will investigate a balance between the guides and the tourists who depend on the savannas and the savanna environment. The purpose is to understand a blending of people's needs and uses with those of the environment. In the study, the ecosystem management section looks at the move away from site-specific or individual land-use management, and instead examines the interactions of the Savannah Guides with the entire ecosystem of the savannas and with their tourist clients.

The Human Capability section of the investigation covers the Savannah Guides as a stakeholder group within the Tropical Savannas. It will also contribute to an added awareness about information on the savannas, as well as sustainable development of natural and cultural resources. As my research is conducted from within the discipline of Sociology, my research will add significantly to an understanding of social and sociological issues within the tropical savannas region of northern Australia.


Dr Roger Wilkinson, JCU.


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Banister et. al (1994) Qualitative Methods in Psychology: A Research Guide, Open University Press, Buckingham.

Black, N. and Rutledge, J. (eds) (1995) Outback Tourism: The Authentic Australian Experience, Department of Tourism, James Cook University of North Queensland.

Hynes, R. (1996) Draft Strategic Land Management Plan: Cobold Gorge Interpretation Site Savannah Guides, Cooperative Research Centre for the Sustainable Development of Tropical Savannas, James Cook University Townsville.

Hynes, R. (1998) Understanding and Maintaining Biodiversity: Background Information for Savannah Guides, Cooperative Research Centre for the Sustainable Development of Tropical Savannas, James Cook University, Townsville.

Kleinhardt - FGI Pty Ltd (1998) Strategic Plan for the Proposed Expansion of the Savannah Guides Network, Produced for Savannah Guides Ltd and Queensland and Northern Territory Governments.

MacCannell, D. (1976) The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, Schocken Books, New York.

Press, T., Lea, D., Webb, A. and Graham, A.: eds (1995) Kakadu: Natural and Cultural Heritage and Management, Australian Nature Conservation Agency and North Australia Research Unit, ANU.

Richins, H., Richardson, J. and Crabtree, A.: eds. (1995) Taking the Next Steps, The Ecotourism Association of Australia, Conference Proceedings.

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