Did I Offend Our Tour Guide? And Was I Off Base?

Filed Under: Travel

One of my favorite things to do in the UAE is to get out of the big cities and go into the desert. During my visit to the UAE a couple of years ago I stayed at Qasr Al Sarab, which is a resort in the desert. It was one of the coolest places I’ve ever stayed, and I really enjoyed dune bashing, camel riding, etc.

Qasr Al Sarab

Making friends at Qasr Al Sarab

So while my dad and I stayed at the Park Hyatt Dubai for our stay, I did still want to venture out into the desert for some dune bashing.

After doing some research online, it appeared as if virtually all tour companies had the same “agenda” for sunset dune bashing. They all seemed to go into the same area, and all seemed to include dinner at a shared “camp.”

The only major difference seemed to be whether you booked a private tour or a group tour. Since it’s my dad’s birthday I decided to book a private tour, so we could do things at our pace.

The dune bashing included the following:

Desert Dune Bashing, Adventure Dune Driving, Sunset Photography, Photographs wearing UAE’s National Clothing, Camel Riding, Drawing Henna Designs, Outdoor Shisha Bar, Sandboarding, Arabic Coffee and Dates for light refreshments at Tea, The Tanoura Dance, A Barbeque Dinner with Vegetarian and Non-Vegetarian Dish and Belly Dancing.

For dinner, we use our camp and it is shared with other tour operators. We take you to our camp which is big enough to hold 50-60 people for dinner. There will be a big square stage (where dancers are performed) around which private tables and chairs will be arranged to have food.

The above price is inclusive of Private car, pick up and drop within Dubai, English Speaking driver and water.

At the time I made the booking I already explained that we probably weren’t going to want to do the dinner, but rather just the dune bashing and camel ride.

We did the dune bashing, and it was awesome, as you’d expect. My dad had a blast. And it was great to have a private tour, since it meant we could do everything at our pace, stop a few more places for photo ops, etc.

Sunset in desert outside of Dubai

It’s actually kind of insane how many tour operators there are in the same area. There must have been well over a hundred cars in the same area of the desert.

Tour operators in desert outside of Dubai

So after the sun set we were driven to the “camp.” The camp is super touristy. Super touristy. But that’s exactly what I expected going in. I enjoy “cultural” experiences, but I also know we’re not going to get much out of a “camp” made up exclusively of a couple of hundred tourists.

Dune bashing dinner “camp”

I figured we would at least ride camels, though then I realized that they weren’t “real” camel rides, but rather it was basically just four camels that you’d sit on for a photo opp and then ride for maybe two minutes in a small circle.

Camel rides at the “camp”

Anyway, we were perfectly happy with the tour, and the “camp” was exactly what I was expecting. But it didn’t really interest us, since the food didn’t look good, and it was super touristy. Since we had a private tour I explained to our guide that we were happy and enjoyed our time, but were ready to go. I also said “hopefully that at least means you get home a couple of hours early as well.”

He seemed kind of shocked, and it took some serious convincing to get him to leave. “You don’t want to see the tanoura and belly dancing?” “No, we’re fine.” “Well why not?”

I wasn’t sure how exactly to politely explain to him that I thought the whole thing was a tourist trap, as I was expecting going in. So I instead emphasized that we had a great time and that we weren’t at all disappointed, just to make sure that wasn’t his concern.

He spent most of the ride to the hotel basically telling us about all the things we could have done at the camp. I asked for a suggestion for his favorite Arabic restaurant in Dubai, and he said “you could have had a great Arabic dinner at the camp.”

The guy was nice, the tour was exactly what I was expecting, etc. But:

  • Is it that inconceivable that some people don’t enjoy sitting at a camp with a couple of hundred tourists eating food that’s high school cafeteria quality (for the record, I tried the “appetizer,” and it wasn’t good at all)?
  • Was he concerned that we weren’t happy since we weren’t fully “maximizing” the experience (despite my repeated attempts to explain to him that we were happy), or did I somehow offend him?

I found the whole interaction a bit strange, so wasn’t sure if I screwed up here, or what…

  1. You did not insult him at all. Don’t take it personally, is is business. After Qasr Al Sarab any camp would look touristy. That place is a dream.

  2. Hmm well I’m hoping it wasn’t a situation where he only gets paid if you stay the whole time, although I would doubt that. Maybe the guy really just thought you were missing out or was worried he’d offended you in some way! Hospitality is a big part of culture in the Middle East.

  3. Not your fault, weird of him imo. Had a semi-related thing happen when I booked an airbnb in Seattle this summer. I had gotten a ride to the north of the city by a friend and then had to take a taxi (~$80) to the airbnb and after telling the airbnb owner about this, she gave me a 5 min lecture + interspersed comments throughout about how crazy that was and how I was basically dumb for not calling her to pick me up (I didn’t know this was a thing).

  4. Peculiar… Perhaps he was worried you hadn’t gotten your fare’s worth, since you paid for the whole shebang? Unless the guides get commission on who is there until the end??? … which just seems weird, tbh.
    I assume the guide wasn’t Emarati, which rules out “pride in our own local-turned-touristic traditions’.

  5. Maybe he wanted to hang out with the other tour guides and you caused an unexpected change in plans for him. No worries. (Wait, you didn’t want to see belly dancers? How shocking.) 😉

  6. That area looks like Disneyland compared to Qsar Al Sarab. Definitely two vastly different experiences.

  7. Hi Ben,

    You did Just fine. Most of my tours when I travel are private tours and I did the same thing in Shanghai and Beijing. Some of the things at the end of the tour included some things that I was truly not interested about and I told my guide that we could get back now for it. His face was priceless like “really??” The way I see it for them it’s business and wanting to support their local friends because at the end of the day – they all know each other and see each other almost everyday doing the same thing over and over. For them is hard to grasp that for us it’s a “personal choice” to do more of what we want rather than sticking to a certain plan later in the day.

    Cheers 🙂

  8. I would have done exactly the same thing you did. I throughly enjoy cultural tours but I cannot stand tourist traps and I would have viewed that camp as a major waste of time. Your guide porbably did not understand why you wouldn’t want to take part in an activity that you had already paid for.

  9. I’ve done a ton of tours like that in the Middle East. Most likely at the camp they had a ton of vendors pressuring you to buy stuff, and he makes a lot of commission off of that. You didn’t offend him, but he made a little less cash than he had hoped.

  10. This is private tour, and I would do the same thing if we do not want to attend any activity on schedule, as the driver is it normal he might think you will miss out the great event.

  11. My guess is that the guides get some sort of kickback on something at the camp.

    This is a tough situation. I also take private tours all the time. Some are much better than others. It can be difficult to communicate your wishes depending on your rapport with the guide. I just spent a couple of weeks in Indonesia. My guide in Bali was a nice enough guy but he was pretty strictly by the program. He ended up taking me to a couple of tourist buffet restaurants that were truly awful. After the second one I started asking more questions and had determined that I would refuse in no uncertain terms to allow myself to be taken to another one. Luckily that wasn’t in the program anyway. My driver in Yogyakarta was much more in tune with me. And after one particularly lost day there (ultimately the fault of the program and not the guide or driver) things improved greatly after I made some comments about the poor experience that one day. After that the two of them couldn’t have been more accommodating.

    All of that is a long way to say I think you did exactly the right thing in exactly the right way. But it was probably so out of the ordinary that it took the guide by surprise. Most tourists just go along with the program because they don’t want to make any waves. And it’s possible that most tourists don’t dislike tourist traps so much to do anything about them.

  12. You are the boss. They should do whatever you wish. Next time, take FCQ with you and you will have NO problems. Let’s just say that he is pretty insistent, to the M to the A to the DEA.

  13. You were fine to do what you did.

    If I’m on a group tour and want to beg off, I explain to the guide that all’s great, I’m tired, and I’ll make my own way back to wherever it is I’m staying.

    I’m I’m on a private tour and I’m ready to end it early, I’ll explain to the guide that I’m tired and we should go back to wherever it is I’m staying. If pushed, I’ll say that my femur is broken, or I’m bleeding out internally and need to have a nap. However I’ve never been pushed, so I’ve not had to use the femur/bleeding excuses.

  14. You are not off base at all. You are the paying customer of a private tour. Having a more bespoke and personal experience is part of why you pay more for that. It is mortifying he did this to you, given that you were a private tour client. I’ve learned over the years to not divulge much, just blame jet lag or illness, so there is no argument to be had or shared opinions. Besides, knowing you and what a nice guy you are, you probably tipped him extra in the end because you felt bad, so he’ll recover. 😉

  15. hey Ben – my family and I took the exact same excursion – private car and all – to the same camp as shown in your photos. We left early for different reason: we were there in June, and we were dying from the heat (106 after sunset) and some of us were showing signs of heat stroke. Though our driver was surprised we wanted to leave, and we let him finish his meal, I made it clear why we were leaving, and he was fine with that.

    Having been a tour guide throughout my twenties, and understanding how poor tour guides think (ones who don’t act as professionally as they should), my guess is that he probably thought you were unsatisfied, and was worried not only about his potential gratuity, but more so about any negative feedback you may give the tour operators that might reflect poorly on him. You did nothing wrong.

  16. Probably lost some commission and a cultural thing. On the local food angle, I usually say I want something where locals would eat. Sometimes that gets a touristy place in a tourist town as they want to keep the good hole-in-the-wall places free of tourist invasion. Offer to include them at dinner or mention you’ll make sure they’re taken care of on the list commission/free dinner angle. Guides and drivers often get a kickback and I would think they get a meal since the dune is remote.

    Sometimes nice but savvy tourists will play the “commission game” with token stops as even a private tour’s profits can consider such things in the final price. You can always ask for a custom tour quote or make it clear upon the start of the tour.

  17. @reeder – there’s lots of that. In the case of this tour, to which Ben will surely attest, is the first stop,where drivers reduce their tire pressure in preparation for the Dune driving. It’s very obvious, that there is some kick-back arrangement (probably a free meal or a couple of bucks since purchases can’t be attributed to a specific driver or company). It only takes a few minutes to let out the air, yet we were clearly encouraged to ‘browse.’ This is typical for organized tours – God know that I had these arrangements along my tour routes (7-10 day trips through the Canadian Rockies)

  18. Ben,

    I’m surprised that, being as well-traveled as you at least appear to be, you chose this kind of tour. My wife and I went to Dubai last year and picked a very similar tour but we only shared our time with about 4 more people which turned out to be recognized German actors and really nice people to spend a few hours with. Platinum Heritage Luxury Tours and Safaris do offer true private tours where you can be all by yourself, or you can go with a very limited group of people. They also take you to a refuge area in the dunes, which is owned by a Sheikh that is also the owner of the company. Therefore, you don’t see anybody else around because it is all private property. I am not one to go on paid tours anywhere because I know exactly where to go to get what I want, but we took a chance based on friends comments and it was the most amazing experience we had in the UAE.

    Do your research, Ben. You out of all people should recognize the difference between a tourist trap type of deal and the type of experience you really want to have.

    Keep having fun with your dad!

  19. No, you didn’t offend your tour guide at all. Period.

    Even personalized tour guides tend to be aggressive so that they can take you to their preferred destinations with their preferred kickbacks, and they know how to phrase it so there’s a societal expectation to buy something at said destinations.

    Also, combine that with the fact that many cultures in the Middle East use aggressive communication styles. Direct, in-your-face style conversation is how it goes. I’m surprised you haven’t encountered more of it, given your travels. Try wandering around parts of the Middle East until the homeless catch up with you, they won’t let you go easily.

    I still remember the time we were in Marrakech and ferried to a carpet store, and my parents, despite being Indian and knowing it was a scam, were effectively pressured into buying a few mediocre carpets. To their credit, they’re still using them. 😉

  20. I would expect that he may have been disappointed because maybe he gets a cut of anything you buy. You didn’t stay and buy all kinds of tourist stuff and he didn’t make anything on the trip.

  21. Lucky i think he would have been upset thinking you didnt enjoy the whole experience and if he reported earlier to his office he will be asked why??and they will think again you didnt enjoy your trip,when i did the trip years ago i refrained from eating and my concern was purely hygienic as i couldnt know the condition in which the food been prepared,conserved and my guide wasnt happy with that,i just hope you gave him a good tip which reflects your degree of satisfaction.

  22. hey Ben

    I’ve lived in Dubai since the last 16 years and trust me you weren’t wrong at all. Unfortunately for them it’s business but also at the same time they take a lot of pride in what they do. So if someone decides to leave early, they sometimes take it personally which in a way is wrong. However, trust me it’s completely normal. What I’d suggest you do for future is that you arrange this tour through your hotel concierge and make sure that the hotel staff or the senior/VIP management informs the driver that the travelling party is only interested in dune bashing. That works best. Just saying from experience because I know it can get ugly sometimes.

    Hope you keep on having more fun with your dad on this trip 🙂

  23. Maybe he had never had people refuse free food before? When my husband and I visited Pearl Harbor, we did a bus tour on advice from others, but decided to stay and visit the air museum that isn’t included in the tour. When we found our tour bus driver and explained, he told us which public transport to take to get back to the main hotels in HNL. He couldn’t have been more understanding about it. He’s still getting paid, so what does he care?!

  24. I would guess that he gets a commission off of extras that are sold at the camp. You were totally within your rights as a consumer to ask that your private tour end as you wanted it to. Ways to make sure that you’re doing your best to avoid a faux pas include 1) giving him a little extra tip for potentially missing some extra income, and 2) sending a note to the agency mentioning his name and what a great time you had on the tour!

  25. I’m voting for Arabic hospitality. Arab cultures pride themselves on welcoming strangers and making them feel well-looked after. Conversely, the role of the guest is to gush about how you don’t deserve, and couldn’t possibly accept, whatever hospitality you’re receiving.

    Your driver probably felt, on the one hand, that you, as a polite man, would never reject the offer of dinner unless you were deeply disgusted by it; and, on the other, that he must’ve failed as a host by doing the Drive Of Shame home with un-delighted guests.

    You didn’t do anything “wrong” but maybe it’s a lesson in setting expectations when you’re in an Arab country (or Japan or Iran, which are similarly obsessive about hospitality and “face”.)

  26. Like others said, there is a good chance that the tour guides make arrangements with the restaurant and vendors to bring their tourists and get a cut in exchange. I know that in some places tourists aren’t even presented with the real menu, but given preselected options that are actually priced higher than the standard menu, with the restaurant and the tour guide splitting the extra profits. I wouldn’t worry about if you offended him or not.

  27. Being born in central asia and leaved thete for 24 years I would guess he was a little bit offended. People in that part of the word take a pride at they hospitality and cultures. It was a custom to show respect to the host by sharing a meal with him. They often bring the best and fattest food to the gest. I am an European and not a big fan of fat but would still eat the offering just to show the respect to the host. I suspect that coukd be a small part why the guide acted tgat way. Traveling to the through asia I always try to be mindful that pepeople do not have a lot of money and pride is only think thay have.

  28. I’ve done that tour and camp and there really wasn’t much for sale (other than shisha), and while it was touristy (in particular the fake camel rides), I’ve had far worse experiences. The photo of me traditional Arab clothing was worth it, and the dinner was better than it looked. I assume he was just concerned you would complain.

    When I was in India last year I was provided a driver for the week. I offended him the first day because I cut my tour short because I was tired. The rest of the week was awkward as he made sure I was happy and wasn’t going to complain to his boss. I finally had a local reiterate to him that I was satisfied with the service, which helped somewhat.

    So, I’d just say it’s a cultural thing and a concern that you might complain.

  29. haha 🙂 you partly ruined his day and kept him from hanging out with his buddies (and possibly some special someone)…. thats a real serious offence 🙂 next time he meets them he’ll be telling them buttered-up compelling funny anecdotes about his last eccentric american tourists lol

    nothing serious 🙂 you’re not the last tourist he’ll take there… 🙂

  30. the highilight of your day was riding in the dunes… which is probably boring as ____ to him.. The highlight of his day was the camp.. you took that away from him 🙂

  31. i prefer to avoid all that. I have a Bedouin friend. Last trip out his family slaughtered a goat and we sat around the fire under the stars in the dunes. Magical.

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