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How prevalent are kickbacks in the industry?

Kickbacks are standard. I used to escort Cosmos tours myself--that's where I learned my horror stories. Cosmos tour guides aren't allowed to take clients to the Van Gogh Museum if that means skipping a visit to the diamond merchants.

I know from experience that drivers will stop at this rest stop rather than that one. They have punchcards that earn them a free bottle of wine after five stops. Clients [travelers] are unable to see through that kind of garbage. It just happens, so we're forceful in preventing it. For example, we tip bus drivers $75 a day to keep them from taking kickbacks.

I read that one of the large companies is now charging guides to lead its tours. They're renting tour groups out to some shark who'll take the clients shopping in return for kickbacks.

I started my tour business after leading tours for other companies and seeing so many appalling abuses. There's no need for it--you can run a tour that's efficient, profitable, and a good value for the customer without getting into that sleazy stuff.

What if a merchant wants to give you a kickback?

Our hope is to negotiate a deal where the merchant will give our customers a net price. But a lot of companies, Venetian glass in particular, think that's going to confuse the situation with other tour companies. The carpet situation in Turkey is just comical that way. Rather than stand on principle, we take the kickback when we have to and put it in our "Chianti Fund." We tell our clients, "The place that sold you glass gave us a commission, so we're buying the wine for lunch."

Where do you find your tour guides, if you don't allow kickbacks?

We get our guides any way we can. Some are people who have taken our tours, started traveling on their own, and decided they'd like to be tour guides. Others have been researchers or consultants for Europe Through the Back Door. 

We also get tour guides who come to us from other companies. They find it refreshing to get paid up front instead of being encouraged to scam travelers. A guide told us that our guides make more in salary than most guides do after adding up their commissions and tips. (We don't allow commissions or tipping.)

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