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Tour guide brings the past to life in London

By ZHENG WANYIN and WANG LINYAN in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-12-05 18:04

An Ran, Blue Badge accredited tour guide and founder of a tour guide agency. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Online visits that developed during pandemic lockdowns now a real-world hit

An Ran may know London better than many locals.

A Blue Badge tour guide based in London with a decade-plus of experience, An, who hails from China, greets Chinese-speaking tourists coming from far and wide to explore the capital of the United Kingdom.

Blue Badge accreditation represents the UK tourist industry's most highly-recognized symbol of professionalism in tour guiding. To earn a Blue Badge, a guide needs to have trained intensively for two years and then pass a number of written and practical exams.

Among the 316 people who are currently listed as London-based Blue Badge tourist guides at the website of Guide London — the association of professional tourist guides, there are only 10 Mandarin speakers.

With more than 1 million followers on Chinese social media platforms, An is a widely recognized tourist guide in the Chinese community.

On the day China Daily met her, An had guided two Chinese families who had flown in from Canada and Australia, specifically to be guided by her.

On her vlogs, you can see An standing near the River Thames, unpacking the eventful stories of the river and the buildings along its banks, with poetic words and informative introductions.

"A running river not only contains water and mud but encompasses the history evolving around the area," she explains. "We are now standing along the River Thames which flows through southern England including London. As far as the eyes can see is the Tower Bridge, a landmark opened in 1894 by the Prince and Princess of Wales."

"What is particularly interesting is the central pair of bascules that can open to allow shipping. These bascules were originally operated by hydraulics, using steam to power the enormous pumping engines, which reminds us of the steam engines that drove forward the Industrial Revolution. Therefore, the long-standing Tower Bridge once marked the rise of the then-British Empire."

An says she entered the tourism industry as a "coincidence", and has adapted to the development of the tourism market quite well, enjoying the momentum of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the emergence of self-guided tours, and the constant growth in tourist visits from China to the UK.

Business was going well until the COVID-19 pandemic, which severely affected international travel and the tourist industry.

As she made moves to adapt by making short videos on guides to museums in the UK, An found herself becoming a social media influencer with millions of online followers.

Seizing opportunities

With the drop in the number of tourists, An and her business partner Chang Ji took the chance to make a few tour-museums-with-me clips that soon went viral on Chinese short-video platforms. Riding the wave of momentum, the team also started to film artifact knowledge-sharing online courses in the summer of 2020.

"Travel through Museums and History", one of their most popular livestreaming courses, introduced the world's leading museums that collect exhibits representing the cradles of human civilization, from Mesopotamia to Ancient India.

"Fall in Love with Art Galleries "walked through Western art history by bringing audiences the stories behind the masterpieces of several key eras, including the Renaissance, the Baroque and the Impressionist periods.

"My home has become the studio, and the slides we made are teaching materials. Chang and I take the viewers through legacies after legacies, and paintings after paintings in this way for more than half a year," An says.

The move was a "bold" one for An. Yet, with hundreds of small clips and around 90-minute courses, An built up followers on Chinese social media, and at the same time, novel coronavirus restrictions were gradually eased in England.

In February 2021, museums were allowed to reopen from mid May, initially at reduced capacity. An, once again in front of people, has continued her efforts in filming, editing and posting her tour-with-me videos.

In April 2022, one month before International Museum Day, Chinese lifestyle social media platform Xiaohongshu launched an art, history and culture-content creators contest, in which An won first prize and made her name among Chinese museumgoers and history buffs.

The power of social media is far beyond her imagination. The video courses meet market demands when people were not able to travel but still eager to know the world. "It's just amazing. We did not expect that people would come to museums because of our sharing (in short video clips)," she recalls.

"Some of the parents have asked their children who study in the UK to get our tour guide services, and even bring me local specialties when they return to the UK from home.

"I receive long letters from fans saying that they will always support me, they've learned a lot from me, or their whole family loves me."

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