Meet the winners of the Wanderlust World Guide Awards 2019

The unsung heroes of travel are celebrated at the Wanderlust World Guide Awards. Lyn Hughes introduces 2019’s deserving winners…

4 mins

A word from Wanderlust's Editor-In-Chief Lyn Hughes

Sometimes, I wish we didn’t have to choose a winner of the Wanderlust World Guide Awards. It’s a delight, yes, but it also feels like an insurmountable challenge: every year brings thousands of testimonials by you and the guides’ colleagues, full of heartfelt praise for these incredible individuals.

It’s always difficult to whittle such a stellar shortlist down to Bronze, Silver and Gold. I spend hours poring over those impassioned, inspirational anecdotes – often with a tear in my eye.

I established the World Guide Awards after the death of Wanderlust co-founder (and my late husband) Paul Morrison in 2004. He always said that great guides were the unsung heroes of travel, so I wanted to create something fitting in his memory – and I am sure that he would have been as enthusiastic about this year’s finalists as we are.

We announced the results at London’s Royal Geographical Society on 2 October. If you couldn’t make it on the night, you can meet all of the winners right here on these pages. We think they’re fantastic, and we’re sure you will too.

Read on to meet the winners of the Wanderlust World Guide Awards 2019...

Gold Award: Chantha Meas

Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos for G Adventures

Also known as Jack, Chantha’s passion for travel is evident in the care he pays not only to his group, but the communities and wildlife around him.

The high number of testimonials he received speaks volumes – they were full of tales about Jack’s knowledge of local cultures, and his ability to handle difficult situations.

He has an innate talent for connecting with people, and shortly after he started guiding at G Adventures he became one of their Chief Experience Officers.

It’s a role he doesn’t take lightly, as he explains the troubled history of South-East Asia with sensitivity and compassion, while paying attention to the little things too – such as organising birthday surprises and nights out for the group.

Wherever he goes, he spreads his infectious laughter and goodwill, even encouraging guests to donate their unused hotel toiletries to local children.

What you said: “An incredible human. He made such an impact on us.”

The judges’ view: “Meas ticks all of the boxes, with the qualities and natural attributes of an exceptional guide. He’s the one that I want to go on tour with the most” - Alex Graeme

How he'll spend his bursary: Meas plans to develop a teaching programme for kids in his village. He also hopes to create a ‘Community Cycling Tour’ for students from the Siem Reap area to lead. Finally, he would donate some of the funds to Planeterra, a G Adventures partner, to help develop social enterprises.

Silver Award: Nitin Dhami

Worldwide for Eldertreks

Nitin may call a small village in the Himalayan foothills home, but his sense of adventure has taken him across the world. He started leading tours all over India in his twenties, eventually setting up his own travel company and working for global tour operators.

If there’s an issue, Nitin will often step in to save the day, sorting out technical problems, security challenges and injured travellers. He deals with anything and anyone that comes his way with an easy competence and humour.

Part of Nitin’s success comes from the depth of his knowledge and his desire to soak up local cultures, traditions and languages; he has climbed to over 6,000m twice in his life, and guided everywhere from Asia to Africa, picking up more than a few dialects along the way.

His glowing testimonials show that guiding isn’t just a job for Nitin, it’s a way of life – one that he navigates with the utmost attention and empathy.

What you said: “His ability to communicate is superior. Nitin is sensitive, straightforward, honest, sincere and empathetic.“ “His first-hand knowledge of the local people and cultures far surpassed anything we expected.”

The judges’ view: “Not simply a tour leader and guide, Nitin deals with a range of destinations and clients – he is seriously impressive” - Derek Moore. “We all want to go on tour with him!” - Alex Graeme.

How he'll spend his bursary: Nitin plans to donate his bursary to a non-profit organisation in India, called EFFORTS, to help support village projects. The funds would help them launch a website and a water mill project, improve paths to the villages in Chamba, and start a rain harvest and solar panel initiative.

Joint Bronze Award: Indika Prasad Kumara

Sri Lanka for Intrepid Travels

According to his clients, there’s no question that Indika can’t answer. ‘Indi’ is a natural teacher; even without his background in education, his knowledge and passion for Sri Lankan culture alone would have made him stand out from the crowd.

Not only do travellers love him, but with his respectful explanations of rituals and customs, so do the communities he visits. And it’s not the first time Indi has been shortlisted: he was commended in 2015, which speaks volumes about the impression he makes.

All of his guests are taken care of without issue, as he juggles teenagers with older guests and responds to on-the-road calamities with a seasoned composure. And yet, he still makes time to add his own individual touch, writing personalised postcards to his guests.

Ultimately, it’s Indi’s ability to take guests around his homeland, sharing stories as well as his own life and values, while delicately explaining the country’s turbulent history, that never fails to make people leave wanting more.

What you said: “He’s an incredibly engaging storyteller, with a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge.” “It was as if we were old friends finally getting a chance to visit Indi’s city and experience it through his eyes.”

The judges’ view: “He deals with unexpected crises and challenges all the time without being fazed by them” - Derek Moore. “He ticks so many boxes – we all think he’s wonderful” - Lyn Hughes.

How he'll spend his bursary: Indika is passionate about helping to educate young people. Having already built up a steady collection of books, he would like to establish a free library for the rural village where he was brought up.

Joint Bronze Award: Ismail Ingrioui

Morocco via Moroccan Guides

Anecdotes about Ismail’s warmth and kindness are not hard to find – he received more testimonials than any other guide this year, and each was glowing with praise for him.

Growing up as a Berber in Morocco’s rugged Atlas Mountains, Ismail has unrivalled insight into local traditions, history and culture. But it was his move to Marrakech, to study English Literature at university, that cemented his decision to become a guide – a family tradition.

He has led many tours over the past decade, and is now working on a freelance basis, showing guests the wild mountains of his youth and the bustling city where he found his place as a guide.

Numerous clients have described Ismail’s ability to go the extra mile, managing expectations and organising spontaneous opportunities while setting the scene of the country with colourful tales of his life.

What you said: “His powerful personal story, told openly and sincerely, had a profound impact on us. We were spellbound.” & “Ismail gave the tour a very personal touch. He really focused on what would give us the best experience.”

The judges’ view: “Ismail has clearly evolved a lot as both a person and a guide. He sounds highly empathetic, knowledgeable and compassionate” - Alex Graeme

How he'll spend his bursary: Ismail believes in a proactive approach to giving people a way to make a living, so he plans to use his bursary on higher education – to learn how to set up a tourism business that provides jobs for locals. He’d also like to donate part of it to the Association Les Enfants de L’Atlas, an orphanage association based in Morocco.

Top History & Culture Guide: Eireann Marshall

Italy for Andante Travels

There’s never a dull moment on a tour with Dr Eireann Marshall. Her expert lectures breathe life into Italy’s myriad historical ruins, with hundreds of her guests flooding our inbox with appreciation for her expertise and interactive approach.

From a young age, Eireann has quenched her thirst for knowledge, from living in a 15th-century Vicenza villa to trekking around ancient sites with her family. While completing her academic research, she teaches clients about the Roman mindset.

She’s always interested in hearing new theories about Italy’s cultural roots, too, and she organises engaging trips to local plays and performances. Over the last 22 years, she has led more than 100 tours and attained numerous qualifications.

What you said: “Our visit was greatly enriched by her boundless energy.”

The judges’ view: “She seems to really make history come alive in a stimulating way. She appeals to intellectuals and the simply curious alike. Best of all, she sounds fun” - Lyn Hughes

Top Tour Guide Leader: Brett Plotz

Japan for Inside Japan

Whether he’s taking you to a school recital or wedding, Brett always puts his own lively stamp on subjects – from the Japanese education system to local religious ceremonies.

Born in the USA, his enthusiasm for all-things Japanese began as a child, when his uncle sent him souvenirs from his business trips. Since then, he’s adopted the culture as his own, moving to Kudamatsu to teach English in 2006 and putting down roots in Yokohama.

Now, he weaves in and out of places like a local, taking guests everywhere from Tokyo’s bright lights to the beautiful countryside – always adding to his impressive knowledge of the country’s history and culture. He has built a reputation of showing guests a different side of the country.

What you said: “His understanding of Japanese heritage was second to none.” & “He shared his love of Japan and allowed us all to feel part of the culture too.”

The judges’ view: “Brett’s clients really see the best of Japan. That deep insight is what guiding is all about.” Derek Moore

Best Safari Guide: James Nampaso

East Africa for Kicheche Camps

East Africa is a complex place, bursting with wildlife and rich landscapes, but James has a talent for navigating it. Guests raved about his knack for spotting and identifying wildlife in their natural habitats, and explaining their behaviour.

Even TV presenter Simon Reeve said: “He’s a magnificent photographer who’ll tell you what settings to use and gift you the perfect F-stop – but if you simply want to sit and marvel at life, he’ll just share the moment with you.”

James began his career as a tent attendant; now he’s in a position where guests often request him years in advance. But it’s not just his extensive knowledge of his homeland that endears him to visitors, it’s his big belly laugh, unfailing support of local communities, and willingness to tackle the tough subjects.

What you said: “He has an uncanny ability to anticipate where you need to be, before the animals have even moved.”

The judges’ view: “People want to travel again and again with him. He’s a talented photographer as well as a guide.” Derek Moore

Top Conservation Guide: Johnny Villalobos

Costa Rica for Exodus Travels

With nearly 25 years of guiding experience under his belt, it’s safe to say there’s not a lot Johnny doesn’t know about Costa Rica’s ecosystem.  

Johnny studied to become a naturalist guide so that his office would be the great outdoors, and his passion for the Earth shines through in his tours.

Not only does he inform guests about the environment, he leads them to a better understanding of the world – taking them to volcanoes and cloud forests, and searching for quetzal birds to admire. 

Part of Johnny’s charm is that he cares deeply for his country. He regularly finds time to educate students on sea turtle volunteer projects, take rural children to discover the rainforest, and raise global awareness of Costa Rica’s fragile environment.  

What you said: “It doesn’t feel like Johnny is your guide. It feels as if he’s a friend, mentor and ambassador.” 

The judges’ view: “He leaves a lasting impression, giving guests a deeper understanding of Costa Rica, the environment and the planet” - Lyn Hughes 

Top UK Guide: Paul Donnelly

Northern Ireland for DC Tours

Northern Ireland’s history is a tough subject to cover on a tour, but it’s one that Paul understands very well.

He regularly guides groups around Belfast, addressing the horrors of the Troubles – all with his trademark sensitivity and humour. 

Having grown up during this dark period, Paul’s first-hand experience and storytelling skills mean that his clients can stroll through the streets and reimagine the once-divided city through his unbiased and enlightening commentary. 

Paul is also committed to promoting reconciliation after conflict, having worked on a number of peace-building projects and shaping a story of hope and progress on his tours.  

What you said: “To take a difficult history of a city and turn it into an engaging, compassionate, nuanced tour that’s full of gems is not easy – but Paul makes it look effortless.” 

The judges’ view: “He really touches people with his insights and storytelling – locals as well as visitors” - Gill Russell. “Makes me want to go to Belfast just to experience his tour” - Alex Graeme 

Top Specialist Guide: Tim Syrad

Wine regions worldwide for Tim Syrad Wine Tours 

Whether you’re on your first or 25th tour with Tim, it’s clear to see that wine is more than his specialist subject – it’s a true passion.

Having led countless clients on hundreds of tours through wine regions across the world, his palate is more refined than most: great news for travellers who want insightful yet simple wine tours and tastings.  

Tim set up his own wine tour company in 2001. Since then, he has maintained exceptional relationships with local winemakers, effortlessly balancing wining and dining with seeing the sights.

He always does his homework, crafting tours with the best vineyards and restaurants over an impressive geographical range. 

But what makes Tim really stand out is his commitment to finding small, off-the-beaten-track wineries that give visitors the delicious buzz of discovery. 

What you said:  “Tim pitches his guiding at exactly the right level – acting as the perfect link between the vintners and the travellers.” 

The judges’ view:  “His passion is infectious, and his clients love and trust him” - Lyn Hughes 

Meet our highly commended guides...

Tanya Cox


Worldwide for Natural Exposures

Growing up in Churchill – ‘the polar bear capital of the world’ – Tanya’s love of wild travel began at young age when she helped out with the family business of tundra buggy tours.

Now she takes guests across the world into well-researched photography hotspots, while sharing her passion with everyone she meets on her way.

Jay Burleson

USA for Trek America & Grand American Adventures

Pro photographer and full-time adventurer Jay has been passionate about the great outdoors ever since he first spied the Rocky Mountains as an impressionable teen.  

From the soundtrack to the food, Jay always delivers an epic American experience, introducing travellers to the wonders of Yosemite and Zion National Parks.  

Tim Pendlebury

Europe for Insight Vacations

Tim may hail from Australia, but he knows Europe like the back of his hand.

Having travelled from West to East over the past 20 years, he enjoys immersing guests in different cultures and ways of life, winning them over with his on-the-road commentary and stories of the regions.

He always makes every traveller feel welcomed, and aims to accommodate any request. 

How the winners were chosen

We asked you to nominate your top guides, and you sent us over 4,000 recommendations – another record-breaking year. We narrowed them down to a shortlist, before inviting more testimonials from their clients and colleagues.

The judging panel then decided who would win Gold, a £5,000 bursary; Silver, £2,500; and two Bronze awards, £1,000 each – as well as the various special awards.

The bursaries were donated by Craghoppers and Malta Tourism Authority.

Related Articles