By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Craftspeople in the villages, even the odd restaurant owner and urban retailer, sometimes pay a commission, or a “thank you” sum of money, to tour companies or guides, drivers and cabbies who bring visitors to their establishments. It’s a fact of business internationally, not just in the state of Oaxaca. Although you might expect that a commission paid to your guide will predetermine what you see and where you stop, and you might not even be aware that it’s going on, it’s not always a bad thing that visitors should shun. Here in southern Mexico, the amount can be anywhere from 10 to 35 percent, perhaps even more. In some cases, it’s on top of a payment made simply for bringing a tour bus to a particular craft workshop, or in Oaxaca, say, a roadside mezcal factory.
In a typical Oaxacan scenario, a tourist decides upon a number of sights of interest along a particular route with a diversity of different options: craft demonstrations, historical sites such as Zapotec ruins, colonial churches, and/or ecotourism visits such as to Hierve el Agua near the state capital. It’s within the context of visits to the first, i.e., handicraft villages where tourists often make purchases, that commissions are sometimes paid.
Commissions Are Not Always Paid
But there are at least three main reasons why some craftspeople do not pay a commission to tour guides and drivers:
-The workshop may have a set policy from which it rarely if ever deviates, knowing that it will make sufficient sales without the help of intermediaries, or believing that tour companies will nevertheless patronize the retailer for one or more of a variety of reasons.
-A craftsperson may wish to keep prices as low as possible, believing that guides will gravitate to his or her shop based on the reputation of rock bottom prices; this assumes the guide wants to provide clients with the value-added service of locating bargains.
-A weaver, potter, sculptor or wood carver may have a reputation for producing the highest quality in a class of artesanías, or manufacturing something that no one else does (i.e. making miniatures, or items of recycled glass, metal or wood), and thus believe that quality and uniqueness will drive business without the need for paying a percentage.
Payment of Commissions May Serve Tourists’ Interests
A guide on a small, personalized tour may in fact end up acting as an interior designer or consultant when visiting craft workshops, and provide valuable advice. The guide might be working on a flat-fee day rate, and spend an inordinate amount of time with clients, above and beyond the call of duty. Since some tourists don’t tip, having established a rate for the day or by the hour, a modest commission is perhaps in order if the client gets what he wants, in spades. On the other hand, who should bear the responsibility of paying something? I would suggest that a generous gratuity is in order, and the craftsperson should keep whatever the client pays, leaving the guide out of that part of the equation.
Reasonable commissions paid to a driver or guide are often indicative of a healthy symbiotic relationship between service provider and craftsperson, which in the end benefits the client. A modest sum should not take the ultimate sale price of the clay figure, wool rug or alebrije, out of the appropriate price range. On the other hand, with a “cheap” large group tour, often drivers change, and they never establish that kind of relationship, and it’s strictly business; that scenario, I would suggest, should be approached with caution.
Is the Tour Guide Motivated by Commission?
There are ways to determine whether your service provider is working for you or strictly for him- or herself, that is, the primary motivation is making more than his or her salary or fee for service:
-Find out in advance approximately how much time will be spent at each stop. If in India and the itinerary calls for 15 minutes at the Taj Mahal, and 1.5 hours at a rug workshop, that should give you an idea.
-Ask for itinerary details in terms of particular workshops, and inquire why weaver A versus weaver B. This means doing one’s due diligence in advance, typically by reading. But remember that journalists and travel guide writers also at times fall prey to monetary incentives, so don’t rely entirely on the literature.
-If you’ve read about the trip and are using a private guide, suggest visiting alternate workshops to those pre-planned, and if there is any resistance, probe further. But remember that your service provider is in theory a professional who knows his business and the vendors better than you do.
-Ask your hotel clerk/concierge for more than one recommendation, and the pros and cons of each, and try to get feedback from others at the lodging who have used that company/driver.
-Before committing, ask the tour company or guide for testimonials, although often tourists are very satisfied without knowing the guide’s modus operandi.
-Consider arranging your touring days before you start your vacation so you can do your homework from a position of strength, calmly, without feeling pressure to do a particular touring route on the last full day of your visit. Use the Internet.
The Key to a Fulfilling, Enjoyable, Educational Touring Day
You may not be back in Oaxaca for a long time, if ever. It’s therefore important to get the most out of each and every vacation day, tours included. Assess the pros and cons of each touring option. Remember that commissions are often a part of the touring experience, not always to be shunned. Do your due diligence, and trust your instincts.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He believes in ethical tourism, which for him means never accepting anything from any mezcal distiller. On the contrary, his lifestyle is often more comfortable than theirs, a significant consideration.