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Guided tours and how to handle them

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Guiding a number of non-cavers around in a cave is called a "guided tour". There has been, in our country, a lot of discussion about this issue and the problems that are related to it. Without exaggeration, we can say that it is one of the most difficult issues around. These days, everyone seems to feel the need to crawl around in a cave: school classes, survival-groups, even managers and executives want to test their "stress-resistance" by going caving a day. One can discuss for hours or days about the fact if we cavers should or may organize or accompany such tours.

But about one thing the majority of cavers seems to agree: the fact that the phenomenon of the "guided tours" - wether it is being done by "real" cavers or by commercial outdoor centres - is responsible for the fast and irreversible deterioration of our caves over the past few decades. Indeed, every caver knows (or should know; and if not: please visit our other pages about cave protection!) that caves are fragile environments, especially the geological and mineralogical aspects of them. An environment that recovers extremely slow from the damage it undergoes... so slowly (thousands of years) that we can consider, from a human life point of view, the damage as being permanent...
This environment cannot handle many visitors... and this is exactly where the main problem of the "Guided tours" phenomenon lies.

Obviously, we do not have precise figures. But we can (as far as Belgium is concerned) try to make an estimation. We do know, for the Flemish Caving Federation (VVS), how many "one-day-insurances for guests" are taken per year. We also have been able to collect data, by means of hidden cave counters (electronic devices) in the entrance of popular caves. Now and then, cave entrances are being systematically controlled: groups are checked, vehicles and visitors are counted. 
We do not have any figures about the number of visitors that Commercial Outdoor centres guide around in their "own"caves. But we know approximately the number of Outdoor Centres. Another unknown thing is the number of people that goes in caves "in the wild", without being accompanied by real cavers or outdoor centres.

Anyway, we can safely estimate that per year at least 10.000, but more realistically 20.000 people are guided around in caves. Maybe even more!
This is a huge number, if one knows that in our country there are not many caves that are being used (or are suited for) such "tourist trips"... maybe 20 caves or so.
Since this over-visitation of those caves is going on for at least 40 years now, this means that this handful of caves has been visited by as many as 400.000 to 800.000 people!

Spiegelglad gepolijste rots, in een passage die reeds door tienduizenden bezoekers is genomen... (Trou d'Haquin)It needs little explanation what the impact of hundreds of thousands of visitors in the fragile cave environment is. These caves have been totally devastated. Every formation that was not too big to carry has been broken or stolen. Every possible part of the cave, not only formations but also the walls has been muddied by contact with muddy hands and boots. The cave floor, often clay sediments, has been trampled everywhere and sometimes knee-deep tracks have been worn out in those floors! The cave rock itself has been polished and worn, making everything shiny and slippery; because limestone rock is quite soft and people crawling over them, will abrade and polish it. 

(picture: Polished rock in a passage that has been done by at least 100.000 visitors... Trou d'Haquin).

Are all of those people sheer vandals then? No, but the occasional visitor of a cave, being confronted for the first time in his life with a dark, wet and slippery, cold, claustrofobic and such hostile environment as a cave, has others things to worry about than the wellfare of nice formations, sediments or animals. He/she only thinks of one thing: myself... how do I get out without having fallen, or slipped, gotten stuck or made myself ridiculous in front of my friends. 

Even if all of these people would have had a proper training first in the so-called "Minimal Impact Caving" (a way of caving that causes minimal damage); the effects would not have been much different. Too much, is too much...

Totaal "versleten" druipsteenformatie; enkel de ruwe vorm komt nog overeen met het origineel. Foto genomen in de totaal platgelopen Trou de la Louve.Repairing the damage is, sadly enough, hardly possible. We must learn to live with the fact that dozens of our once beautiful caves have becomes sterile deserts of mud and worn rock.

(picture: a totally "worn" calcite formation... only the rough shape still looks like the original. Picture taken in the over-visited Trou de la Louve)

It is, in the first place, vital that we avoid that other, still well-conserved caves would undergo the same faith.
In the second place, we must try to limit and stabilize the damage in the caves that are already devastated and give them the chance to begin their long recovery process. This is only possible by reducing the number of visitors.

- Both the Walloon federation (Union Belge de Spéléologie, +/- 1300 cavers) and the Flemish Federation (Verbond van Vlaamse Speleologen, +/- 700 cavers) have introduced about ten years ago, an "ethical code" that must be respected by all of its members. A big chapter in this code concerns the "Guided Tours": how big groups can be, in which caves such tours can be held, how many cavers should accompany the visitors etc...
The Flemish federation made this code even more severe and introduced additional limits: each club cannot guide more people per year than their "quota" (based on the numbers of members of the club); and also there is an obligation to report every guided tour and the number of people in the party to the Federation.

- The Walloon federation UBS has also gated systematically the most popular caves with gates that all can be opened with the same, common key. Only real caving clubs can obtain a copy of the key.

- The Walloon federation UBS has introduced a competence certificate (B.I.R.S) and ditto training, that must be in possession of every "commercial" caver wanting to guide vistors around in caves controlled by the UBS.

- The Walloon federation UBS has formed a commission that handles all problems regarding Cave Protection and Access. In this commission there are representatives of both the Walloon (UBS) and Flemish (VVS) federations. Over the years, this commission has done a good and remarkable job.

(NB: unfortunately, and this is where all logic and common sense stops; the Walloon federation (UBS) itself, organizes commercial guided tours, by means of an annexe association called "S.S.W.". An unacceptable situation, in my humble opinion!)

- Also, since a few years now, the Flemish federation VVS has incorporated a training session about cave conservation its "Basic" caver training courses. The slide-presentation, that you can download elsewhere in this website is being used during this training.
Unfortunately, in the training courses of the Walloon federation, there is not much room for the "cave protection issues" . As always, caver training courses are very technically orientated towards caving and rope-techniques. This is very regrettable.

- The VVS introduced in 2000 a request form that most be completed by any non-caver that asks for organizing a guided tour and in which the demanding party must explain the motives of its visit. (note: the VVS does not organize guided tours, but can in some cases pass the demand on to a caving club, in case the motives are compatible with the ethical code of the VVS and only after a decision of the board of directors).

- The Belgian government also acted: a law was accepted in 1995, making it possible to classify and protect caves because of their "scientific interest" (which can be of mineralogical, hydrological or biological nature). For those caves, strict access conditions apply. More than 30 caves have already been protected this way; amongst them two caves that have been explored and are managed by Caving club Avalon: Grotte des Emotions and Réseau de Waerimont.
NB: Unfortunately, in some cases caves have been, or are in the process of being, classified as "caves of scientific interest" behind the back of the caving community and in a few cases access isn't even allowed anymore. This is a deplorable and shameful situation, because without any exception, those caves have been discovered by us, cavers!

Een totaal ongerepte, oogverblindende druipsteenformatie (Bois de waerimont) in een beschermde grot. Het is moeilijk voor te stellen dat de druipsteenformatie van de foto hierboven, er ooit ook zo uitzag...Indeed we can observe a reduced number of people visiting our caves, thus resulting in less pressure for the caves. Also, the problems are being concentrated now in a smaller number of caves than before because guided tours can only be undertaken now in a handful of caves.  On the other hand, new problems have immerged, such as commercial Outdoor Centres buying or hiring caves from landowners, so that they can use them exclusively for their guided tours business, and without being bothered by ethical codes or any rules at all. This way, caves have been turned into fairground attractions... a terribly thing, also because of, let's not forget,  the fact that caves are part of nature and our natural patrimony. So how can they be traded or sold like if they were second hand cars or houses?
(Picture: a beautiful and virgin calcite formation in a protected cave where access regulations apply (Bois de Waerimont). One can hardly imagine that the formation that you can see on the previous picture (Trou de la Louve), once was like this!)

Of course you can...but within the rules and the ethical code of your caving federation (especially regarding frequency of trips and number of participants). Showing a cave to the non-caving public, in a correct, educational and respectful manner, is one of the building blocks of Cave Protection and formation of new cavers. Sensitization, we call this.

However, in Caving club Avalon we will always limit ourselves to those people showing a real interest in caves. Not in people seeking a day of fun, or a thrill or a kick... only in those that truly want to see or learn what a cave is, how and where and why caves are formed, what techniques we need to visit them. People that are open for, and aware of the fragility of the underground environment.


I know... me too I'm getting dozens of demands from people wanting to go caving. Here's a (real-world) example:

Dear all,
I am from University xxx in Holland and I want to organize a survival weekend in Belgium for a party of about 30 persons. We have been talking about caving and we would like to know if you can supply us a guide. How much will this cost and where can this be done?
Thanks in advance,


So how do I handle these demands?

First I try to determine the motivation and real interest of the party. In most cases it is easy to see that they are not really interested in caves. There are people seeking a one-day thrill. There are the "survivors" (as if any "survival skills" would be needed to get out of a cave alive, haha!). There are the companies wanting to give their managers some kind of a "stress-training". There's the head of a school wanting to get rid of 130 of his students on the school's yearly "sports-day". There's the bunch of guys thinking a cave is a fun-fair. And so on and so on... I've seen it all.
If you are unsure of their motivation, ask for more information. The number of people in the party will tell you a lot! You can bet your life, that if two people ask you to go caving once, that they are really interested in caving!  In case of 30 people, their main interest is probably ... "fun".

OK, so we have "categorized" them:

1) They are really interested. Give them some practical information they need: how big the party can be (in our club, 5 is the maximum),  what clothes they need, what the insurance will cost. But above all, make them aware of the cave protection issues, even before the actual trip! During and after the trip, show them and point out the different aspects of cave protection: in any of our Belgian caves you have an overload of examples (unfortunately bad ones)...
So...bravo: you have just made a number of people aware of what a cave is and how fragile it is. Those people will never look at a cave with the same eyes again.

En hop... weer (de voorhoede van ) een groep dagjesmensen die door Trou d'haquin gesluisd wordt2) Hummm...no those people are *really not* interested in the caves themselves. Two ways to handle this: 

a) sent them walking, by saying "sorry, I can't help you". But those guys will just go and find someone else, maybe even a "professional" outdoor centre. The problem is not solved but passed over to somebody else. In most cases, the outcome is bad... for our caves.

b) the only sensible thing to do is to say "No" to those people, and to tell them WHY. Make them aware of our problems. Because after all, how could they even know? Tell them about the systematical degradation of our caves because of the thousands of visitors each year. Tell them about the problems with landowners. Point them to sources of information about cave conservation (such as this website!). Ask them to have some understanding, and that they would contribute to the protection of our caves, just by choosing another activity for they "day of fun".
All you have to do, is make some standard letter or email that you can use each time again. My personal experience is that in many cases, people do understand what you are telling them. 
And again bravo: you have again made some people aware of what cave conservation is all about.

(Picture: And there goes another bunch of visitors being "dragged" through Trou d'Haquin. - This picture also shows very well the polished rock)


It is a fact that over the past decade, the caving scene in Belgium has undergone dramatic changes. Being a caver has not become any easier: you need keys to gates, you need permissions, and some caves have been forbidden. But our caves, and isn't that the most important thing, are under less stress and pressure than they once were.  But the battle is not over yet. We cavers have a big responsibility and we must take it! Not only must we behave correctly in a cave and apply the "minimal impact caving" techniques that you can read about, elsewhere in this site, but also must we continuously sensitize other cavers, and make the non-caving public aware of the fragility of our caves.... 


Contacteer/contact us:  SC Avalon vzw
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