In the age of overtourism, we should be mindful of the impact that our presence in tourist destinations has on local livelihood and the experience of other tourists. A common complaint from locals is big groups of people navigating through small streets, blocking them and making life harder for those living in places we go to on vacation. This issue has become so big that the city of Amsterdam has even banned tour groups from the red-light district.
To be clear, overtourism wasn’t the only reason why the city of Amsterdam banned group tours from the red-light district. The main issue was respect (or lack thereof) for sex workers. However, when interviewing locals about the negative effects of mass tourism, large groups moving slowly through old European cities are often experienced as a big nuisance. Similar measures were taken at the Statue of Liberty in New York City. Speaking to CNN, a representative for the Statue of Liberty Park said: “Commercial guided tours add to the congestion in these identified areas and prevent the free flow of visitor movement and impact public programs and the visitor experience”.
As tourists we have an impact on the landmarks and destinations we visit. In Europe, cities like Venice and Barcelona are also places that people call home. As tourists, we have the responsibility to make sure we minimize our impact on daily life. Moving in large groups, blocking roads and stopping local inhabitants from doing their daily business is not the way to go. A free group tour might cost you nothing, but the city will pay the price.
So now you know why you shouldn’t opt for a big tour group but why are small tour groups better for you as a tourist? Smaller tour groups are not only the better option for the city. They are also often of much higher quality. Large groups will always follow a pre-arranged route. Day in, day out, the tour guide will visit the same highlights and must tell the same story over and over again.
When touring in a smaller tour group, there is a lot more flexibility. The tour guide will most likely ask for the group’s input along the tour and has the possibility of visiting some spots outside the original itinerary based on your preferences.
When touring in small groups, you’ll find that your tour gets more personal. You’ll have the opportunity to ask your guide all the questions that come to mind and she (or he) will take the time to answer them. Smaller groups have a more intimate atmosphere that often results in the sharing of personal experiences, insider tips and other information that might go beyond the scope of regular bigger tours. You will definitely hear anecdotes from your guide and the other tourists in your group which will inspire you to explore other sights and activities in the city. Tour guides from small groups are more willing to share their little secret spots like the best local restaurants and the prettiest shops and boutiques to get your one of a kind souvenir.
In short, we feel that free tours don’t offer value for (no) money. These free tours are only sustainable because they are cheap to organize. They need big groups to be somehow profitable and the quality is often poor. These tours make money by visiting tourists traps at which they will earn a commission on your purchase. As a result, these tours follow a very similar path, with the same story and the same sights every tour.
Also, almost anyone can become a tour guide. Sometimes the guides are certified, but think about it… Why would a highly qualified professional give tours for free? They make some money because you are ‘sort of required’ to tip at the end, but how much they’ll get, depends on the group and more tourists means more money. However, if someone is a pro, she (or he) wouldn’t think twice about charging for their expertise, right?
It’s not always easy to find small tour groups. You will have to do a bit of research and actively search for smaller groups. If the tour isn’t advertised as a ‘small group tour’ or with a maximum number of participants, there is a big chance you might end up in a big tour. Tours by bus or coach are never small. Coaches easily fit 50 people.
So how to find small group tours? Sometimes it’s easy: the title of the tour might include ‘small group’ or even ‘private tour’. Otherwise you can find clues in the description of the tour. You can also contact the tour organizer and ask questions. If that doesn’t help, check the reviews. Also, we want to encourage you to review tours. When you review the tour you can leave hints behind for the following travellers making it easier for following travelers. We always try to be honest if a group was too big, blocked roads or caused other annoyances.