Often a tour guide can make or break a trip. While many guides engage with tourists, offering interesting commentary and observations mixed in with local history, others tend to be robotic and remote.
On a visit to Salzburg years ago, my lively guide sang every song from "The Sound of Music" as our van trundled through the Tyrolean countryside. The memory is vivid. Yet on a visit to Lalibela, Ethiopia, my guide never looked up from the pages of a guidebook as he recited the history of the rock-cut churches of the region. I retained very little of what he read.
On a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I met Carlos Batista, whose assignment was to shepherd 35 travel advisors and myself through a fairly grueling schedule of site inspections of eight luxury resorts, all the while keeping to a schedule that included time for meals, rest stops, photo ops and meetings with tourism officials and hoteliers, all within a two-day window.
Batista was a rock star. He did it all with humor and style -- and he incorporated some dance moves and hit songs into his commentary -- as he peppered us with local history and background on the Cap Cana community, briefed us on the highlights of each resort we were about to visit and fielded our innumerable questions.
When I asked him to define his role in tourism, he clarified his job description for me this way: "I am an international public relations analyst -- that's a real fancy way of saying I am a tour guide."
He is an experienced guide, for sure. He's been with the Ministry of Tourism as a guide since he began his career on May 3, 1999 in Santo Domingo.
Over the years he's led fam groups, press trips and thousands of tourists on his tours all over the Dominican Republic.
"My job is to project a good image of my country by promoting the DR and offering the best experiences for my clients," Batista said.
"I try to incorporate beaches, nature and culture into the itineraries. I want visitors to see the real life of the Dominican people, as well as our attractions and historical sites."
Many of the people he's guided have become good friends whom he has visited and even stayed with on his own trips to the U.S. and abroad.
He is a recognized presence at trade shows, as well. He's fluent in French and attends an annual business-to-business show in Paris.
"The DR has a big booth there, and that's where I'm stationed to answer questions," he said. "I do a 30-minute power point presentation for French travel agents, telling them about our main tourist areas in Santo Domingo, Punta Cana, Samana, Puerto Plata and Santiago and the central region," he said.
Prior to his career as a guide, he spent four years with Club Med at its resort in Punta Cana, preceded by several years as a customer service agent for Air France at the airport in Santo Domingo.
I asked him what, if any, problems he's encountered with all the groups under his charge over the years. He hesitated for a moment and then answered, "The media groups cause the most problems for me. The writers all have different interests and agendas. One wants to explore the voodoo element; another wants to see only luxury resorts. Someone else wants to write about visiting the DR on a budget. None want to follow the same itinerary as everyone else. I've learned how to say no, and to adjust schedules so that everyone is happy."
Batista recounted a particular difficult trip with a press group from Brazil.
"This was my first big headache in 20 years," he said. "They ditched the itinerary, wanted to go swimming, which they did, but then wanted lunch immediately. I'd planned it for a bit later at a restaurant, but they climbed back on the bus in wet swimsuits and got the seats all wet and sandy. The owner of the bus was really annoyed with me."
On another trip, a group of Italian journalists decided they would chuck the schedule that Batista had carefully planned. Instead they poured over maps of the DR and told Batista where they wanted to go.
"It seemed as if they were taking me, I wasn't guiding them," he said. "The guide and the bus driver have to be happy on these trips, and on that one, we weren't."
He's escorted celebrities on small trips as well.
"They come with their kids. I always have a cooler full of soft drinks for the kids plus a lot of games. I become a child again," Batista said.
"What's the best part of your job?" I asked him.
"Bringing people to wonderful places, showing them my country and making friends," he answered.
Batista gave high praise to the group on my trip. "The agents were terrific," he said. "They caused me no stress despite our tight schedule. They were always on time. They really listened and asked great questions. And they sure knew how to have fun."
When the trip ended, Batista was there to say goodbye to each one of us as we checked out of Sanctuary Cap Cana at different times throughout the day.
After that he was headed home for a two-day break before his next group arrived. His month-long vacation from mid-December to mid-January would be family time for him.
"We always stay in the DR," he said. "There's so much to see and do. We love where we live."