The Dark Side of Free Walking Tours
Joining a Free Walking Tour is a nice way to discover a city's history and main attractions for low price (or less). However, the working conditions of the guides are not optimal.
During my ESC in Leipzig, I decided with other volunteers to spend one weekend in Prague. Czech Republic is very close to Saxony, and if you are able to reach Dresden, the connections to Prague are very frequent from there.
I have already been in Prague in 2017, but I decided it was worth to go back another time, as I find the capital of Czech Republic really charming. Indeed, its mix of Gothic, Renaissance, Romanesque, Art Nouveau, and Baroque architecture makes Prague a very unique place in the world. Walking through its cobblestone streets, crossing the famous Karlův Most (Charles Bridge), and stopping there to admire the sunset is something incredibly magic. Personally, I would describe the atmosphere of the city as melancholic, maybe because of its past of oppression – the country belonged first to the Habsburg emperor, then to Hitler’s Drittes Reich, then to the Eastern Block until Czechoslovakia became independent after the Velvet Revolution (1989), and finally Czech and Slovakia decided peacefully to split up (1993).
Once in Prague, the other volunteers and I decided to book a Free Walking Tour for the day after. It was the first time for me to join a Free Walking Tour, as I usually prefer to explore the city on my own.
What is a Free Walking Tour? Well, as the name suggests, it is a tour of the city where a guide walks with the tourists, showing them the most important monuments of the centre. The guide provides an historical information of when, how, and why that specific monument was built – and it is quite interesting, because so often tourists take pictures of churches, palaces, statues, etc. without knowing anything about them. Furthermore, the local guide suggests places to eat or drink, to exchange money (in Czech Republic for example you have to pay in Czech crown), and she/he also tells some curiosity about the city or famous people that lived there.
In the past few years, Free Tour have become very popular, and the number of reservations of a Free Tour is today much greater than that of a traditional one. Most young people prefer this option, especially for economic and practical reasons. Indeed, compared to a traditional guided tour, a Free Walking Tour is more flexible, as it can be booked without any cost, and you can also cancel it last minute without paying any fee. Furthermore, it is “free”, namely, the tourists can choose how much it is worth, so they are free to pay as much as they want.
Although its advantages for the costumers, the Free Tour business model is highly problematic. The Free Tour I joined in Prague lasted three hours, from 2pm until 5pm with 20 minutes of break. At the end, my group of friends and I decided to give our guide 5 euros each. Probably, some people gave more, other people less. At the beginning, I thought it was a fair price, but some hours after the tour I started to rethink about it, wondering whether that money was only a tip or the guide’s whole wage. Therefore, I decided to search for more information about how being an employee of a Free Tour company works. In particular, an article from the blog “The View from the Office” caught my attention. It was titled “Are free walking tours really free?”
The author Caitlyn O’Dowd tells her experience as a free tour guide. At the beginning, she thought it was a cool job, until she found out that behind this nice idea lies an unfair system. Basically, the Free Tour guides are freelance who assume risk for the tour. They not paid by the company the work for; the money the tourists give them is actually their wage. All the money they earn depends on: a) how many tourists join a tour, and b) how much they choose to pay. So, when my friends and I paid our guide 5 euros for a three hours tour, this mean that we valued his work only 1,60 euros per hour, which is quite less than how much a worker needs. But there is more.
As explained by John O’Sullivan on his post “The ‘Free Tour’ Business Model (and Why it’s Broken)” on LinkedIn, guides have to pay a fixed cost per lead. Therefore, for every person who joins their tour, the guide pays a fixed sum, regardless of if that guest pays a tip or not. Imagine that 30 guests book a 3 hour Free Tour, and that everyone tips 10 euros. The guide earns 300 euros gross. The company asks the freelance guide 4 euros per person as “marketing fee”. This means, the company makes 120 euros profit, while the guide 180. If the guests tip 5 euros, she/he will earn only 1 euro per person. If they tip 3/2 euros or nothing, the guide had actually made a loss, because she/he must pay the company anyways.
So, reasonably Caitlyn O’Dowd asks herself: “What kind of corrupt business practices were these? How can it be that employees have to pay their bosses for the privilege of simply working for them?” […] the label should be banned Europe-wide, as it is nothing more than a scam, where the losers are the ones actually presenting the product”. At the end of her article, she recommend the tourists who decide to book a Free Tour to tip properly.
However, until the tourism industry will not be regulated, by imposing to the companies rules that guarantee the workers their basic rights (such as labour unions, a minimum wage), the employers will always try to make as much profit as possible, regardless the rights of their employee, who have to rely on the generosity of their customers.