Predators or Service Providers? How to Deal with Persistent Touts When You Travel

Can I have some kyat? Me offering Burmese monks alms in Yangon Myanmar. Different deal than entrepreneurs but the same rules apply.


Her eyes locked with mine.


For a split second.


This was her window.


3 days into my world travels over 6 years ago I found myself on the beach in Sanur Bali. After 3 days of traveling around the world – factoring in the time change and 1 day layover in Taipei – we headed toward the bay for a morning of rest and relaxation.


But the massage lady had a different idea.


She looked me in the eyes, smiled, and began persistently asking me if I wanted a massage. I politely declined. About 7 times. By the 8th time I smiled even more widely – think The Joker meets The Cheshire Cat – and put some pep in my travel step, mildly jogging away from the lady, to make some space between us.


This smile/decline/jog dance happened every day during our 2 weeks in Sanur. At the time I recall filming a video explaining the predatory practices of local touts on the road. But that was the guy who had spent only 3 days traveling internationally.


After a few months, I slowly began to get it. After 6 years I genuinely get it.


Predator or Service Provider?


These folks are not predators. Nor are they annoying, even if you want to scream at them. Nope.


The touts who ask you again and again if you want their services, whether in Bali or Vietnam or Cambodia or Thailand or Costa Rica or Turkey or India or anywhere on earth, are doing what they have been conditioned to do.


In some cases, desperation to make money drives them. Desperation to put food on the table. In other cases, this is learned, conditioned behavior, as entrepreneurs know that persistently asking a tourist for their business makes 1 in 30 tourists cave and hire them. Or in 1 in 50 cases, a tourist gladly wants their product or service.


Not About You All About Them


Tourists tend to take things personally, bitching and moaning about being ripped off or pestered or annoyed or agitated, but persistent touts, or entrepreneurs, simply act how they act based on their view of the world.


Whether the entrepreneur offers:


  • taxi services
  • massage services
  • spa services
  • tailor services (Hoi An Vietnam has over 200 tailor shops)
  • any service


…the asking, or the pitching, or the requesting, all are a personal experience only for the person doing the asking.


Turkish Rugs


We found a smooth, slick, and yep, nice guy in Istanbul last year who was selling rugs in a heavily touristed area. He did the subtle deal; ask us in for tea, chat for 20 minutes, build a bond, then ask for the sell. We stuck around. I enjoyed the process but eventually left the store sans run, telling him I do not own a home, so it makes little sense to travel the world carrying a huge rug. He laughed.


Time Share in Bali


Once in Seminyak, Bali, we chose to go on a Time Share Presentation. At the time I was pissed off that the folks has wasted an hour of my time, demanding I pay tens of thousands of dollars in person for a down payment – all business must be done in person, in Bali – right after the presentation. But now I know; how people do business around the world is how they do business. There is nothing personal or annoying or offensive about it.


The Best Practice I Know in Interacting with Persistent Entrepreneurs


First off; understand that how a tout or entrepreneur behaves is learned behavior. If they seem desperate, or even aggressive, have compassion for them. They may mistakenly see you as the meal ticket that helps them feed their family that night.


Most entrepreneurs – even if they are persistent in asking you for business – are extremely friendly, kind and pleasant. Understand that these are loving, kind people who have learned that this is how you do business.


Then, when you feel more chill about the situation, with your guilt or anger or annoyance having largely vanished…..follow my simple 4 step process:


  1. Smile widely and warmly and nod “No” (unless you want the service of course)
  2. Don’t say a word
  3. Look forward
  4. Move on


This recipe is beyond fool proof.


It has literally worked every time, through hundreds of interactions, all over the globe.


Smiling eases any tension; you show love for these people, and feel good about their persistence, versus feeling annoyed or guilty about their asks.


Not saying a word and nodding your head “No” instantly gives them a clear signal; the dialog will be one way, and it will end quickly. Because saying “No Thank You” is the quickest way to invite discussion and open dialog. A nice, warm smile and gentle nod disarms the asking party, sending the polite but firm message: “Move on to the next tourist.”


Looking forward shows the entrepreneur that you are moving on. So they should move on too.


Moving on creates space between you and the seller.


The pitch ends. You move on feeling relaxed, good and ready to enjoy your day.


The entrepreneur can try connecting with other tourists who want their products and services.


The Challenge


1 challenge arises; when the individual approaches you, feelings of guilt or anger or awkwardness may arise.


Breathe these feelings in and out. Then follow the 4 step process. Do not say a word, even if you feel rude or guilty. You don’t owe them anything. They approached you. So a smile and nod can help you get over the discomfort of refusing their pitch.


The Next Challenge


If you happen to be in a place where the touts gather en masse – say, the airport in Bali – you will have to ditch this strategy, put your head down and ignore the taxi drivers as you make your way through the gauntlet.


These folks get the deal; if 40 tourists were trying to pull them in 40 directions, they would behave the same exact way. They will gladly look to the next tourist to see if they can offer their services and generate a fare.