Judging by the number of times you’ll be propositioned for a massage in Cusco, Peru, you’d think that there must be a surfeit of massage therapy schools and therapists in the province. Walk a few blocks from the city’s Plaza de Armas in any direction, and you’ll walk straight into someone offering to rub you down! Cusco is no different than other large tourist centres — think Thailand’s Khao San, India’s Agra, Marrakech's Djemaa el-Fna — where touts attempt to steer travellers toward products or services at inflated prices. After awhile, aggressive touts can make you feel that your destination is not really a country so much as a giant machine designed to extract money from you.
To most people, touts are seen as an annoyance — they routinely get yelled at and told off. But to their families, they are the source of an income. And to a local economy in a developing nation, they are part of an extensive marketing network that makes the travel industry go round.
So, it’s okay to be on guard — but not so much that you sacrifice genuine local interactions. After all, outside of tourist centres, it’s not uncommon for people to go out of their way to help you without expecting anything in return. To help you walk that fine line, we’ve pulled together a few tips from here and there on how to deal with aggressive touts.
1. Book ahead
Most airports, train stations, and ferries attract touts. After all, they’re full of dazed and jet-lagged travellers in unfamiliar surroundings who likely don’t speak the language and aren’t familiar with the geography. Once you’ve cleared customs, touts are quick to latch on, making it difficult to make informed decisions regarding your transportation options. Some less ethical touts may try to steer you away from legitimate services such as the airport shuttle, the hotel shuttle, or the public bus stations in favour of pushing you to illegitimate (and often more expensive) options from which they’ll draw a commission. Always be on the lookout for touts at arrival destinations, regardless of where you travel. If you're arriving in the evening in a major tourist destination, it’s worth making a reservation with a hostel, guesthouse, or hotel before you arrive. Your guide book will likely offer up a few phone numbers — or, if you’re travelling with G Adventures, you can book an optional airport transfer — check out the Women on Wheels Program, where local women are ensuring the safe transfer of people travelling with G Adventures from airport to hotel.
2. Be polite but firm
Smile — but only once. Don’t make the mistake of shaking hands or answering the question of where you are from. Be polite, but firm, explicit, and unambiguous. In the West, people are programmed to react or respond to someone asking us a question. If you feel you’re getting thrown a pitch — cut it short with, “Sorry, no thank you.” Taking the time to learn a few key words and phrases (e.g., “No thank you”) in the local language can also go a long way and is appreciated by the local people — including touts. And if you get frustrated, don’t lose your temper. Remember, acting rudely may offend somebody nearby that would never think of bothering you. No matter how annoying these interactions are, you are representing your country and your culture. This is a chance for others to learn about how you handle yourself under pressure. A little bit of patience and a sense of humour go a long way in coping with such situations.
3. Everybody’s got an uncle — and he wants to sell you something
Offers of a free cup of chai will invariably turn into pitches to purchase a Persian rug. Art students in Tiananmen Square will invite you back to their “studio,” just to “have a look.” If you’re new to the tourist trail, touts will see you coming from a mile away. Remember, this is just a pitch — the act may be convincing, but at the end of the day it’s still an act. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to have to say no to someone who looks like they could desperately use your money. If you feel compelled to donate, it’s best to do so at a church or temple, or an NGO, where your money is more likely to get into the hands of those who need it. If you’re travelling with G Adventures, you can opt to donate a dollar a day to the Planetaria Foundation for the duration of your tour, and your funds will go directly to the people and places that you connect with on the trip. Avoid donating to touts who claim they are collecting for charity — even if they have an identity card. Despite their seemingly plausible stories, they are usually nothing more than con men.
4. There’s no such things as a free lunch
Sometimes a taxi, tuk tuk, or rickshaw driver will offer up a reduced fare if you agree to visit one or two jewellery or carpet shops on your way. Of course, you’ll be advised that no purchases are necessary. But if you don’t purchase something, you’ll soon discover the number of stops increases so that the driver can make up commissions to offset your fare. Moreover, the salespeople in these shops generally engage in high-pressure sales tactics. They won’t let you get away easily, so your short trip can often take much longer and be much more expensive than had you just negotiated a fare in advance or let the meter run.
What are your techniques for dealing with with aggressive touts? Share them in the comments below. With your permission, we’ll include some of your suggestions in a future follow-up post. Thanks in advance.
G Adventures runs a number of departures encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.