Free walking tours, backpackers were first onboard, now mainstream

December 4th, 2017 | | industry

With European cities touting “Free Walking Tours” for over a decade, travellers – from all demographics – are now familiar, and comfortable with the idea in Australia.

Tour operators in Sydney and Melbourne have taken on the European free walking tour model, and adapted it to their own style and specific interests of tourists to Australia.

Lessons learned from European model

The concept of free walking tours was first introduced in Berlin by Sandemans New Europe Tours in 2004. Customers spent several hours on a guided walk through the city, without paying anything until the end of the tour. At this point, they were asked to tip according to their budget and overall enjoyment. The guides leading the tour paid a marketing fee to Sandemans for the ability to run the tour, and in return, were entitled to the tips. At first, Sandemans faced criticism regarding the fairness in calling these tours “free”, while expecting customers to pay a tip. Critics also opposed guides using the free tours as a platform to upsell paid tours, and exclusively promote businesses that offered kickbacks in exchange for recommendations.

When the model spread to Sydney in 2009 with the creation of I’mFree Walking Tours, the company adopted the same marketing fee strategy which Sandemans imposed, but made some changes to avoid the criticisms that European tours faced. For example, the Sydney tour operators distanced themselves from the “bait-and-switch” approach by advertising clearly showing that the tour is “pay what you feel”, preparing customers for the expectation of payment. I’mFree has also proved its possible to operate without upselling paid tours and prides itself on refusing any partnerships with businesses based on paid recommendations.

The idea of free walking tours has successfully spread to other Australian cities. Many of these tours, such as Walks 101 in Melbourne, started after the owner/operators had a positive experience guiding European tours and wanted to bring the idea back to an Australian city. Alternatively, a few of the free tours in Australia are operated by the local government, such as Brisbane’s Free Walking Tour, operated by the Visitor Centre. Similarly, the City of Perth has a dedicated set of volunteers running their iCity Free Orientation Walking Tours through their Information Centre.

Backpackers first onboard with the idea

When free tours were first introduced, tourists were hesitant to risk their time on something that they didn’t pay any money for. Customers often use price as a method for evaluating quality, assuming that the less they pay, the lower quality the product will be. Early Sydney operators found that the majority of people willing to take a chance on free tours were backpackers. This group is typically low on cash, but have plenty of time to risk on a tour of ‘what could be’ questionable quality.

Now that these tours have been established for years, other demographics have become comfortable with the idea that free doesn’t necessarily indicate low quality. In fact, it can be argued that a tipping model actually incentivizes the guide to give the best quality tour they can in order to earn the most tips. With new types of travellers joining the tours, operators are adapting to cater to a wider range of interests, languages, and age groups. Only this week Tours for Tips has launched a new tour in Sydney, exclusively in Chinese (Mandarin).

Differentiation by traveller demographics

Now that the free walking tour concept is more accepted, companies have the opportunity to either focus on a niche demographic, or broaden their reach to accommodate both backpackers and other groups. In Sydney, one operator appeals to travellers seeking an authentic experience by hiring local-only guides. With the continued expansion of the European free walking tour model, the acceptance of the ‘free walking tour’ but tips accpeted model will continue to spread and open up new markets for Australian operators to target.


2 Responses

  1. Silke says:

    In Brisbane the 100% free service run by volunteers is part of the Global Greeters Network of which Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns, Melbourne and Sydney are members.[Operates in over 150 cities]. In Brisbane the Greeter Program is run by Brisbane Marketing [with over 200 volunteers] and offer special programs, including for YHA – see

  2. Dave says:

    Free walking tour……… I could name a few nationalises that would still try and haggle for a discount on that.