Buyer beware: when pushy hawkers won't take no for an answer

Michael Turtle
October 29 2023 - 5:00am
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Sometimes you're expecting it. Sometimes it can come as a surprise. But there's no mistaking the call when it comes.

"Maaaah-saaaagee?"

It doesn't matter which city (or country) you're in, there seems to be a universality to the way the offer of a massage is pronounced, with the elongated vowels and the rising inflection at the end.

"Maaaah-saaaagee?"

Thai masseurs ply their trade in Bangkok. Picture Shutterstock
Thai masseurs ply their trade in Bangkok. Picture Shutterstock

It's normally an invitation easy enough to ignore - although there was one time I had to struggle to free myself from an overly zealous woman who was dragging me down a Thai beach. But just this week, my arm grabbed at as I walked past a row of massage shops in Kuala Lumpur's Bukit Bintang district, I was reminded how irritating the constant calls can be.

"Maaaah-saaaagee?"

Around the world, dealing with various forms of touts can be a frustrating affair. It could be a taxi driver following you down the road in Bali; a vendor trying to push his kitsch Egyptian souvenirs as you run the gauntlet into the Valley of the Kings; or even staff outside restaurants in the touristy parts of Europe blocking your way and pushing menus in your face. It just ends up making you feel uncomfortable (at best) or, in some cases, downright unsafe.

Kitsch souvenirs to tempt tourists in Egypt. Picture Shutterstock
Kitsch souvenirs to tempt tourists in Egypt. Picture Shutterstock

Deep down, I think most tourists are fairly understanding of situations where locals are running a business and trying to drum up sales. Yes, it's annoying to be constantly offered wooden frogs that make a croaking noise if you rub a stick across their back, but no need to get hopping mad, you can just say no.

The problem can come with the persistence, even when you've declined the offer. When you're followed, shouted at, grabbed at. That's when I think things have started to go too far. And one of the worst places I've encountered this kind of harassment is in Morocco, particularly walking through the maze of alleys in the medina of Fez.

"Do you need help?"

"What you looking for?"

"I can show you, my friend."

Be vigilant in crowded medinas. Picture Shutterstock
Be vigilant in crowded medinas. Picture Shutterstock

These touts come armed with a range of wares and services to offer - tours to the "secret" sights, trinkets that are definitely absolutely genuinely genuine, or perhaps just leading you through the labyrinth to your hotel (actually quite useful). And they don't give up easily.

Normally each one will follow me for a few minutes, so I make some small talk and engage with their questions - but I make it clear right from the start that I'm not interested. They try, fair enough, but they're not stupid so they move on soon enough.

Perhaps these Moroccan touts are amateur psychologists and know who to target and how to read reactions. I'm shocked to see some wide-eyed foreigners head off with a local who's told them the street ahead is closed (no, just no...). But I do empathise with a group of elderly travellers I see eventually give some coins to children indefatigably trying to sell them tissues, not even bothering to take the packet.

A jewellery vendor on the beach in Goa, India. Picture Shutterstock
A jewellery vendor on the beach in Goa, India. Picture Shutterstock

So, what's the best way to avoid getting to this point?

Firstly, say no right from the beginning - even better, say no before they even start the conversation. It shows that you know why they're really approaching you, which immediately makes you a more difficult target.

Secondly, stay calm and treat the touts like anybody else on the street. If they ask where you're from (which they will), answer them. Engaging in a friendly conversation doesn't make it more likely they'll try to harass you. From my experience, it's the opposite, because the decency you show gets reflected back somewhat.

However, maintain consistency with your refusal to accept their offer (whether it be a tour, taking you to a shop, selling you something). If you show any sign of hesitancy - or even a hint you might be considering the proposal - it will only strengthen their resolve.

Now, if someone touches you, be firm but not aggressive. Never escalate the situation, but also make it clear that it's not acceptable and you're not happy. I've found that if someone thinks they've gone too far, they give up because they realise you're unlikely to lead to a sale.

And finally, if you feel unsafe or the hassling is verging on harassment, try to casually find somewhere that offers a refuge so you can reset the situation. Convenience stores can be great for this in Southeast Asia (bonus: they're air-conditioned!) but even a hotel lobby is good. Often, if it's around a tourist site that you're being mobbed, just going through the gate is enough.

I wish I could say that these tips will always work perfectly. The truth is that there will always be some touts that decide to push the boundaries. In those situations, I just remind myself how lucky I am to even be there. This moment of irritation will pass, as will the next (and if you're in Egypt, the next and the next).

Just don't let it take away from the other amazing experiences you're going to have. And don't let it stop you from engaging with other local businesses that will respectfully offer you something - often these will be your most rewarding experiences.

Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle

Travel writer

Michael Turtle is an Australian journalist who left his job in television to travel the world forever. He'll show you how to find the lesser-known places, get involved in the culture, learn the history, and meet locals along the way.

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