The tourism industry generated $7.6 trillion for the global GDP in the year 2014, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. It is among the largest sectors in the world. Of course, the WTTC only accounts for money made legally, but there is so much more going on under the table and in the back alleys of some of the most beautiful cities around the globe. In this list, we’re going underground to talk about some of the shady money moves that you may not know about that generate millions every year in the tourism trade.
Unlicensed Tour Guides
In Tibet, Rome, and more there are incredible museums rich with history. Just walking near the Sistine Chapel, and you will be bombarded by a number of tour guides, or at the Colosseum, even in Central Park. In this places, there are tourist agencies that are accredited by the city, and they offer legitimate tours at fair prices. In the series Scam City (available on Netflix), Conor Woodman experiences the issue with this first hand. Several guides approach him to try and sell him a tour, offering him the opportunity to meet the pope, tour the Vatican Gardens, and even skips hours worth of lines. Just moments later, he enters without a guide to see that there are no lines at all! What’s more, the Vatican Gardens is an outing that needs to be booked in advance – you can’t just stroll in! These unlicensed guides will say just about anything to get you to give them your money, and they bank on tourists being uninformed to make a quick buck.
Most people don’t consider this to be a business, but there are some people who pickpocket for a living that claim to have pulled in over 10k a day! When you think about a pickpocket, or a thief (because that’s what they are), you usually just think of some skeevy person who bumps you on the train and slips your wallet off you as they pass. That does happen, but the ‘art’ has been taken to extremes you couldn’t imagine. In Amsterdam, there are people who will pretend to be police officers and will frisk tourists down and ask for their wallet for the sake of identification, and then just run off with it! Additionally, pickpockets also work in groups and create elaborate ruses to select their mark, and then distract the unsuspecting victims.
Taxis are always a gamble, even when you’re stateside. Most airports will have taxis that charge a higher fare than they need to, which is something you should look out for regardless of where you are, but there is more going on beneath the surface in some cases. Taxi drivers make an exorbitant amount of money by taking customers on the longer route, altering the meter, and many of them (which you’ll read more about later) work in conjunction with other scammers in taking a mark to a clip joint style club, a particular shop, or even to a certain street corner. The taxi drivers would then receive a commission, or what is called a ‘kickback’ in their world. A serious problem that is most prevalent in Mexico City but is happening all over the world is that people purchase old taxi cabs, and operate them without authorization and use that ruse to kidnap people and force them into human trafficking operations.
Counterfeit money is a problem in many different industries, but tourists that aren’t familiar with a particular currency are more than ripe for picking. Counterfeit bills sell for double their face value, which means a fake $50 bill would cost you $100 to buy. In other countries, the taxi drivers, many vendors, and even some currency exchange booths will take your money and give you counterfeit bills as your change. The most prolific counterfeiter in Argentina predicts that he has made over $10 million in his lifetime in fake bills, and the majority of them are in rotation in Argentina.
Booking hotels online is a lot more reliable than it used to be now that several credible hotel comparison websites exist. This isn’t to scare you away from using such services. This is more for Craigslist and similar websites around the world that have hotels listed in their classifieds, and websites for particular hotels that seem a little ‘off.’ Conor Woodman did the entire series on Netflix, Scam City, and when he booked his hotel in Las Vegas, everything seemed fine. When he arrived at the location, the photos he was shown weren’t even taken in Vegas, and the address was for an apartment building. He tried to call the number listed to hear a disconnection message. There are people who exist off of the money made from creating fake listings for hotel rooms, and there is nothing that can be done about it after your money is sent and you’ve arrived at your destination to find out that it was a fraud.
Fake Products & Artifacts
Fake artifacts are sold in Mexico, India, Morocco, and many other places. In Morocco, the antique rugs are highly desirable and extremely valuable. Most people who operate in the trade of fake goods are counting on the purchaser’s untrained eye; they don’t expect you to be able to tell the difference. Many rug sellers will purposely distress the rugs by leaving them in the sun, washing them with a mild bleach solution, and beating them with rocks. In Mexico, a tourist was once sold a shard of roof tile busted off the top of the building and told that it was an ancient sliver of pottery. Worried that your trinkets might be fake? Chances are if you made it through customs, they’re not real. Artifacts from other countries are rarely allowed into the US because of the prevalence of museum theft. More modern items like purses, perfumes, and even electronics bring in millions per year in London, New York, Thailand, and more.
Clip joints are most popular in places notorious for partying or that are popular destinations for sex tourism. They are sometimes also called fleshpots. The scheme involves approaching tourists and suggesting a favorite bar, nightclub, or even strip club. This person will often go with the tourist to the bar, and they have a few drinks. Sometimes a woman approaches and asks the tourist into a back room to talk. Regardless of whether or not drinks are actually ordered, or services are rendered, doesn’t usually matter. The bill will come at the end of the night and can cost hundreds to even thousands of dollars. One clip joint in Amsterdam that won’t be named charges $30 for a pint of beer! When the bill arrives, there are charges added like a service fee, hostess fee, bartending surcharge, and all sorts of random things alongside the ridiculously priced drinks. Bouncers physically threaten the tourists if they refuse to pay, and will even take the victim to an ATM if they don’t have cash on hand. In some places, the police and taxi drivers all participate in the operation.
Street show is more of an umbrella term in this case. Whether it is a snake handler in the middle east, the gladiators at the Colosseum in Rome, or even Spongebob wandering the streets of New York City, this is way more common than people realize. Also, way more organized. These people approach tourists as they’re walking through, and quickly start taking photos or performing rituals on them without much conversation, so the tourist doesn’t have time to consent. After all, is said and done, they then request money for whatever it is that they’ve done. Many of these people aren’t authorized to do this so that they can sometimes charge as much as $50 for just a quick photo. How this operates on a larger scale is that one group or person will gravitate the tourist towards other teams doing their version of the same thing and then profits are split.
Three Card Monte
This is the most well-known streetside scam, and it takes place in almost every highly trafficked city around the world. It happens during events like Mardi Gras, at markets on the street, and sometimes just randomly in a downtown area that’s pretty populated. It appears like it is a game of skill, your eyes against the dealer’s eyes. Sometimes it is done with playing cards (2 red, one black), it can also be done with three small cups and a marble, or any variety of items that can produce the same effect. The person running the game quickly shuffles these things around, and players have to place a bet and guess where the marble or differently colored card is. Of course, sleight of hand plays a role in the scam, but in some places, it has become quite a large scale operation. Some players are in on it and will make substantial bets and then be able to guess correctly because they’re partners of the dealer, which makes other unknowing victims feel confident they have a chance and drives stakes higher. Because this type of gambling is illegal, there are lookouts involved and even guards. 5-10 people can be running one game, and the untrained eye could never tell.
This itself isn’t a business, but it is referential to all nine points on this list. Ripping off tourists has become its own industry, and there are big networks of people who orchestrate what seems like the smallest of scams. In Las Vegas, the men selling VIP tickets up and down the strip answer to a promoter, who answers to the club owner, and everyone receives a kickback for the VIP slips that truly only guarantee you a longer wait in line when the night falls. In Rome, the gatherers that advertise tours answer to the tour guides, who answer to a boss. There is a man identified only by the name Franco who is one of the wealthiest men in Rome, and he started out doing photos as a gladiator. Now, he owns gatherers, tour guides, taxi drivers, and much more, all controlled by literal henchmen. This is a relatively new category of organized crime, but it’s expanding just as fast as the perfectly legal tourist industry, and there is a lot of money involved.