A Canadian-based student who completed a tour guiding course at Northern Regional College has qualified as an OCN-accredited tour guide. Alison Balzer, originally from Bangor in County Down, emigrated to Vancouver with her family when she was just eight years old. Now living in Nova Scotia, like thousands of diaspora scattered around the world, Alison is passionate about her Celtic roots and wants to share her passion with others.
Alison completed a Master’s degree in Scottish Heritage. This, coupled with a travel industry trip to Northern Ireland a few years ago, made her aware of the wealth and depth of the region’s tourism offering.
To share her passion for Northern Ireland and Scotland, Alison set up her own travel company, Linens and Larders Travel to design bespoke tours for visitors.
She explained how the focus of her business model is slow tourism, geared towards small groups looking for a unique travel experience. By partnering with local artisans who showcase traditional skills, including weaving, spinning, baking and cooking with locally sourced ingredients, Alison plans to take her visitors on roads less travelled.
“Local knowledge, a passion for showing off the area and excellent customer are key to the visitor experience,” Alison explained.
“While I was working on my itineraries, I realised it could be very beneficial for me to have an accredited tour guiding qualification, so I decided to make the most of lockdown and work towards achieving my qualification.”
However, it was not as straightforward as Alison first thought as there were no suitable short-term courses available in her local area. When she discovered that the eight-week course offered by Northern Regional College would be delivered online due to lockdown, she jumped at the chance to register.
“The course was ideal and exactly what I was looking for. In normal circumstances, this course would have been delivered face-to-face in the classroom and I couldn’t have done it, so this was one of the few upsides to the pandemic!
“The course was delivered over Zoom and although it was only for eight weeks, we covered so much material including a good overview of the tourism industry, health and safety and regulatory requirements, and how to prepare and deliver tour commentaries. Although the travel and tourism industry has largely been put on hold due to the global pandemic, Alison is looking forward to a bright future.
“As we move out of lockdown, people are starting to think about travelling again so I’m doing some preparatory work on different tours as I want to be ready to move when they decide to book. Doing the course has been a great way for me to focus and finetune my tours,” she said.
Travel and Tourism lecturer Karen McLeod who delivered the course said she was delighted with the students’ 100% retention, success and achievement rate, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
“Through a series of practical and interactive Zoom sessions, all the required learning outcomes were met, including understanding the role of a tour guide, the planning and evaluation of routes and itineraries, and the health and safety considerations of the role,” Karen explained.
Although the OCN Tour Guiding course was introduced by the College in 2017 as a stand-alone course, it is now also offered as an additional qualification for course enrichment to Level 3 Extended Diploma in Travel and Tourism students in the College’s Newtownabbey and Ballymena campuses.
“We strive for vocational excellence in all of our courses at the College and for our Level 3 Travel and Tourism students, achieving at Tour Guiding qualification is an important aspect of that, greatly enhancing their employability in the tourism industry,” Karen continued.
“This tour guiding qualification will be especially relevant in the months ahead with the anticipated increase in ‘staycations’ and for some people, it could be an opportunity to reconnect with their own area, maybe even visit some local attractions for the very first time.”