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Taking free walking tours in Spain has become a regular practice among many tourists. After all, who doesn’t like to get a nice service for free? But, are these tours actually “free”?
The purpose of this article is to unveil the reality behind the free walking tours, to question if they are really free, and to provoke a reflection about this type of service.
Think about this. Don’t you find that a professional service for find is kind of awkward? Would you leave your mouth in the hands of a “free” dentist? Would you find it normal for a taxi driver to offer “free” transportation services?
Let’s talk about Spain, but almost everything I discuss here is valid for free walking tours in other parts of the world.
First of all, I would start saying that there are different groups, companies and institutions that offer free walking tours:
The personal opinions I express in this article refer only to the last group on the list, free walking tours offered by private companies. I don’t see any problems in the tours offered by the first three groups, for the reasons that I will explain below.
Nowadays, free walking tours in Spain are an incredibly profitable business. SANDEMANs, the pioneering company, offers tours in more than 20 cities around the world, while countless others replicate its business model. Walking through the center of Barcelona, or any other major tourist city, without finding a free walking tour, is becoming harder and harder.
Where is the money in this specific business?
Free walking tours are a great business because the costs involved are very small.
First, these companies don’t need to rent any space, the city belongs to everyone and using a public space to generate profit involves no charge for a private company.
Second, there is also no tax collection for this activity. In fact, there is massive tax evasion… And this kind of economic activity should regularly pay taxes as other regular businesses do, whether they are related to tourism or not.
But, even more importantly, the guides leading the groups and providing the service to the companies are not employees, nor is there any kind of labor relationship between the company and the guide. There are no salaries, no social security, no health insurance. It’s the ultra liberal economy dream come true. Workers who don’t receive a salary but generate profit for the company!
Let’s examine how the company generates profit and what the situation of the guide who leads the free walking tours is.
You probably know how a free walking tour works. But if you don’t, here is a shot explanation.
At the agreed time, you show up at a meeting point (generally a main sight of the city) and you wait, together with other tourists, until the free walking tour actually starts. The free walking tour usually take place exclusively in public spaces, without entering into monuments, because the guides are not official and cannot do this type of work. At the end of the tour, you are invited to show your gratitude tipping the guide. It’s completely optional so you can tip or not.
For the guide, it’s a little different. He registered his services with the company that offers the tours. The company schedules the guide different times throughout the day during which they will lend their services.
At the beginning of the tour, if you haven’t written your name on the list of participants, the guide will suggest a group picture to share it on social media. In fact, the reason for this picture of the whole group photo is to calculate the number of attendees on each free walking tour.
Because the guide has to pay a fee to the company, which is calculated according to the number of participants in the tour. This amount varies between 2€ and 5€ per participant, depending on the company and the destination. The company justifies this charge because it covers the marketing, promotion and organization of the free walking tours.
So far, so good. That is, when there is a real legal labor relationship, with an employment contract and salary paid by the company to the guide. The problem is that the reality is very different.
Imagine this situation: if the guide is taking a group of 30 people and the fee is 4€ per person, as soon as the tour starts the guide owes 120€ to the company. That’s why it’s so important to get a good tip. If the guide gets a total tip of less than €120 at the end of the walking tour, he will have to pay to different to his company in order to keep working. Yes, the guide will pay to have the privilege of taking you around the city. If the tip is €120, the guide has worked for nothing. Any amount over €120 is the guide’s “salary”.
Now you understand the guide’s friendliness, his jokes and his good mood. He has to create a great atmosphere that leads you to be generous and leave a nice tip.
The main reason why I’m try to discourage you from taking any free walking tours in Spain is that they are an extreme example of exploitative work. And what’s even worse is that the local, regional and national authorities still allow this activity, violating any Spanish labor legislation.
SANDEMANs’ activities have already been exposed for several years in Germany, where the city of Berlin has obliged the free tour walking companies to hire its guides. Unfortunately, this is still not the case in Spain.
You probably agree with this practice. But I would like to think that, for most of you, a job market where you work in exchange for a (uncertain) tip is not part of your model of society, it’s not what you would wish for you, your family or your children.
I would like to point out that free walking tours companies take great care in hiding from customers (you, as a tourist) how the system works. Their free walking tours proposal is completely dishonest. If you were aware that the guide doesn’t have any kind of contract, insurance or fixed remuneration for the service he is providing, some tourists would never join a free walking tour, while others would consider leaving an even bigger tip, thus the free tour would stop being actually free.
If the situation is so bad, why do people want to work as guides? In general, these guides are young people, students living abroad and trying to earn extra money, or people outside the job market for whom the free tours offer a source of income, regardless of how low it is. The staff turnover is extremely high, a very few of them remain for a long time in a job that is paid with tips exclusively.
The uncontrolled growth of the available free walking tours in the most touristic destinations (remember, it’s a very profitable business) is having a terrible impact on the urban landscape. The impression that you are competing to share the public space with hordes of tourists is becoming more and more real.
In Barcelona, the narrow streets of the Ciutat Vella are a great example of this situation. Mercat de la Boquería had to ban groups from entering at certain times because of the confusion they caused.
As more and more people travel, like you and me, the cities become more crowded. And the multiplication of large groups created by the free walking tours contributes to a degradation of the traveler’s experience.
I am fully aware that the temptation to accept a free service is irresistible. But I would like you to consider the business ethics involved here and how you can become a more conscious traveler.
The reasons, as I explained above, can be summarized here:
In short, “free” is not free and “tips” are not tips. This is clearly a commercial operation. And local laws unfortunately don’t address this very matter — bosses shouldn’t help themselves to their workers’ tips.
Please, don’t be part of this shady system.