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HomeColumnsSpecial FeaturesSo-called “Free Tours” is a worrying phenomenon that is fast spreading across Europe, say tourist guides

So-called “Free Tours” is a worrying phenomenon that is fast spreading across Europe, say tourist guides

FEG had organised a Round Table meeting on this issue, as early as 2010 in Brussels during our EGM, after receiving complaints of our member-associations, which still keep seeing these unauthorized persons acting in their own countries, ignoring any existing E.U. or national laws.

European Federation of Tourist Guide Associations and its members – the federations and associations of qualified tourist guides across Europe – have been seriously concerned since 2009 about the services offered by the so-called “Free Tours”, which can be companies or private persons under different names found in various European destinations, mostly active in the capital cities of several countries.

These tours are advertised by their organisers on the web, social media, etc. as being completely free of charge for the consumer/visitor. They are guided walking tours which are not organised by a travel agency or a tour operator and are conducted by unqualified and unauthorized persons, who – at the end of the tour – ask the visitors for tips. This worrying phenomenon is fast spreading across Europe, no matter if the tourist guide profession and the tour operator/travel agency activities are regulated in a country or not. As a result, we see guided groups “for free” with 50-60 people in the streets, while at the same time many tourism professionals are unemployed and many travel agencies close down. at a certain meeting point at a specific time, so anybody can join them without prior booking or notification to the organizer.

FEG had organised a Round Table meeting on this issue, as early as 2010 in Brussels during our EGM, after receiving complaints of our member-associations, which still keep seeing these unauthorized persons acting in their own countries, ignoring any existing E.U. or national laws.

Points of immediate concern
1. There is no guarantee that the person organising or leading the tour adheres to any professional authorisation, standards or has any relevant qualification. They are not qualified tourist guides, nor do they – in countries where this is required – have any permission to operate as tourist guides or tour organisers. There is therefore no guarantee of the quality or standard of the tour.
2. There is an issue with regards to trading standards and transparency. The tours are advertised as “free”, but in practice a tip is demanded from the tour participants. Regardless of the tip received, the usual practice is that then a commission per participant is demanded by the company from the person conducting the tour. The consumer and tour participant is therefore mislead in two ways; the tours are not without cost and a commission is demanded by the operator.
3. The tours raise several legal issues with regards to the income earned by the persons organising and conducting the tours. Is the income earned declared? Do they pay tax on it? Do they have work permits? Has the employer a legal right to demand commission from the tips earned? If the tour leaders are not employed by the organiser, is their self-employed status declared? Do they pay national insurance? Do they pay any taxes? Do they have a legal permit to trade on the streets? Do they have professional liability insurance?
4. There are issues with regards to health and safety. Do the persons leading the tours have any training in health and safety? Do they have first aid training?

Points of wider concern
1. The image of the qualified tourist guide risks being negatively influenced by the conduct of unqualified persons operating with no regard for quality or trading standards while just claiming to be “tourguides”.
2. Group tourism as a whole risks being tarnished and viewed negatively by residents and local stakeholders for whom these tours may appear to be “an environmental nuisance” and not differentiated from those tour operators who do respect quality, trading standards and the law.
3. Where these “free tours” operate at – or within close proximity of – historical sites and monuments, overcrowding – they frequently have very large groups and often several tours are conducted at the same time – and a complete lack of group management and control are already having a negative and detrimental effect on the presentation and preservation of the relevant sites. For other visitors – and individuals and groups led by qualified tourist guides – the experience of the site / monument may as a result be severely impaired.
4. These tours are the very opposite of the broadly agreed goal of striving towards increased quality, standards and sustainability within the tourism industry, and the wish to create sustainable employment for young people. The persons conducting the tours are paid in tips only, which means low pay with no guaranteed income or employment. No professional qualification for conducting the tours is required. These are only ever short term engagements and could be seen as a way of exploiting young people outside the professional labour market. Meanwhile, the operation of such “free tours” make it even more difficult for those young people who are – through educational qualifications and professional training – seeking sustainable employment as qualified tourist guides. Their efforts are severely undermined by the phenomenon of “free tours”.

Action to be taken
1. In the countries where the guiding profession and tour organising is regulated, where in breach of the law, these “Free Tours” should be challenged by the relevant authorities.
2. In countries with no such regulations, even if these “Free tours” are not in breach of the law, authorities need to be aware of our concerns – as listed above – and the penalties some of these “free tour” organizers have already incurred, i.e. at one point banned in Madrid, fined in Prague.
3. Potential consumers should be informed of the truth about “Free tours” using all available Internet sources e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Tripadvisor, etc. Their “image” has so far been carefully and powerfully conveyed online, but customers are not aware of the real facts about their “Free tours”.
4. Tourism organisations, local authorities, tax authorities (the Inland Revenue), Fair Trade organisations, consumers’ organisations, political partners, trade unions, travel agents & tour operators are copied in this correspondence, in order to protect the image of a destination and the legal operation of authorized companies and qualified professionals in their territory, according to law.
5. FEG also informs all relevant European authorities and organisations of our concerns.

Theodore Koumelis
Co-Founder & Managing Director - Travel Media Applications | Website

Theodore is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of TravelDailyNews Media Network; his responsibilities include business development and planning for TravelDailyNews long-term opportunities.

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