Beware of your tour guide

December 11, 2012, Tuesday/ 17:54:00

“Scam City,” a show produced by National Geographic, features reporter Conor Woodman exposing scams targeting tourists around the world.

 In a recent show, Woodman posed as a tourist in İstanbul, experiencing firsthand some of the scams regularly run on unsuspecting visitors. Included in his report was the boat bait and switch, where a relaxing Bosporus cruise on a comfortable boat turned out to be what seemed to be a badly refurbished fishing boat crammed full of other unsuspecting tourists who had fallen for the same ruse. Woodman also experienced the seedier side of the nightlife of İstanbul’s Beyoğlu neighborhood. Known for its nightclubs and restaurants, Beyoğlu also has a reputation of an area where scams are run on tourists who fall prey to young men who strike up conversations, offering to treat the unwary to a couple of drinks, which in Woodman’s case ended up costing him TL 1,500 for two beers.

This episode, as could be expected, caught the attention of the city’s administration. Speaking at a symposium on transportation in İstanbul, Governor Avni Mutlu stated that it was intolerable to see cheating tourists as a normal occurrence. Mutlu stressed that authorities would continue to fight these types of activities. He stated that while there may be difficulties associated with reporting an incident, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism would see them through to the very end. He added that tourists can file complaints and authorities will review the incidents uncovered by the show.

While Mr. Mutlu’s statements are welcome, there are other scams that need to be addressed -- ones that happen every day to tourists who are here for a short time and who do not know how to complain or do not have time to file a complaint and follow up on it. These are the tourists who are taken advantage of by a licensed, professional tour guide, someone who they have hired to show them the historic sites of the city, who builds up a sense of trust and who then knowingly fleeces them out of additional money after they have already paid a sometimes hefty fee for a guided tour.

Like the numerous unscrupulous taxi drivers who take tourists on the long, expensive routes to a destination or switch money on passengers, insisting that the TL 50 bill handed over for the fare was only a TL 5 note, there are also licensed tour guides who are only looking for a way to make quick money off of tourists. This in no way applies to all tour guides, just as not all taxi drivers are dishonest. However, it only takes a handful of the crooked ones to give all of them a bad name, one that affects how tourists view not only İstanbul, but Turkey.

A personal experience with scammers

An example of how a dishonest tour guide operates is illustrated by what happened to elderly friends of mine who stopped in İstanbul at the end of a cruise. Not a rich couple, they had saved for this “once in a lifetime” trip for several years. In order to be able to take their time seeing the historic area and not feel rushed, they hired a private guide to show them the major sites. Wanting to get together before they returned to the hotel where they were staying after disembarking from the cruise, we decided to meet for an early dinner near the Spice Bazaar, the last stop on their tour. I was surprised when they arrived at the restaurant without their guide, because we had invited her to join us.   The guide had originally welcomed the invitation, but after they made purchases in the Spice Bazaar, she suddenly remembered another appointment and dropped them off at the restaurant door.

They gave a rundown of their day and then hesitantly asked if the prices in the Spice Bazaar were normal for İstanbul. The guide took them to a store she said was where her own mother always bought nuts, dried fruits and spices because it had the best quality and prices.

Checking the posted prices, which seemed reasonable, they stocked up on gifts to take home. The total bill of TL 900 surprised them, but the guide assured them that this was a fair price. I asked to see what they bought, but the guide had insisted on taking the bags back to the hotel for them while we met for dinner -- a nice gesture, but one that immediately made me suspicious. They pulled out their list of what they bought and my estimate was that it should have cost them around TL 350 at most. They had asked the guide to look at the receipt before signing and she assured them that they were getting a special price because they were with her. Yes, unfortunately for them, they were given a special price -- one that was wildly inflated.

Unfortunately, I had to tell my friends that their guide had just scammed them, along with the store. I asked if they wanted to return to the store with me, but they were exhausted after sightseeing and were leaving early the next morning and needed to rest and pack. They decided to chalk it up to experience. The upshot of this was that their tour guide, in cahoots with the store, pocketed a very nice wad of cash in addition to being paid her regular fee for sightseeing.

Another incident occurred at a textile store I frequent in the Grand Bazaar. A licensed tour guide was there with his clients, two women. As they looked through cashmere shawls, one of the women asked the guide how much they cost. He asked the sales clerk in Turkish and was told, in Turkish, that they cost $200. The guide turned to his clients and told them in English that they cost $300 each. The clerk turned to me and motioned me to not say anything. The women each bought a couple of the shawls along with some other items. After the group left, I asked the clerk why he didn’t correct the guide when he added $100 onto the price. He explained that the guide would be back later to collect the extra money he added on to every purchase. So, in addition to his usual fee, just from this store, he was pocketing over $400 extra -- a charge his clients knew nothing about. The clerk explained that if they said anything, guides would refuse to bring clients to their store, which was business they couldn’t afford to lose. They had no choice but to let the guides add whatever they wanted onto the actual prices.

These are just two examples of the behavior I have seen from licensed, professional tour guides. As stated previously, these guides give a bad name to the profession. I personally know several professional guides who are proud of their profession, who are concerned with presenting the best of Turkey to visitors and who would never think of trying to take advantage of their clients.

It is unfortunate that there are guides who see this job as a way to freely exploit tourists. The association overseeing licensing of professional guides needs to crack down on unethical members. Guides who are pocketing these exorbitant commissions should lose their licenses. It doesn’t matter that this is a common practice around the world. There is too much to lose in having unethical guides representing the country.

The second article about this topic will give more examples of how tour guides scam tourists and ways that visitors can try to avoid getting taken advantage of while here.