Why Baksheesh is Bad
Baksheesh is bad – perhaps not wrong – but definitely bad, and in more ways than just for your wallet and personal psychology. No – it is not a form of pipe tobacco, or a fast-paced Middle Eastern dance, but instead is a practice or convention of tipping aimed primarily at foreign travelers.
Egyptians have not always known of “baksheesh”, and the practice had apparently been started by well-to-do, colonial-era Europeans only a few hundred years ago. At Egyptian Sidekick we had rejected “baksheesh” from the very beginning, and insist that you do not tip your Sidekick and driver.
Rates set at Egyptian Sidekick are fair, and are developed through consultation with Sidekicks and contributors who monitor fuel prices and wage rates, and who are doing the actual work on the ground by organizing and supervising travelers on their Egyptian adventures.
Previous travelers to Egypt will have noticed that some Egyptians expect, and unabashedly request, a tip for any service, and even when none has been rendered. Even store clerks concluding a sale might ask for a tip, claiming they are an underpaid employees. Whether you take a taxi, have your luggage taken to your room, have a door held open for you, or are strolling along the banks of the Nile, you might very well encounter Egyptians expecting a tip.
So what exactly is “baksheesh” and how is it understood by contemporary Egyptians? First of all, those Egyptians who expect a tip have previously come in contact with the mass tourism industry; this sadly encompasses not only adults, but teens and small children as well. The tell-tale sign of “baksheesh” being solicited is with an overt, extended hand, followed by the words “baksheesh” and often a heartbreaking story. Travelers should not fall for this, since a single tip is never enough, and the recipient will insist for more.
Academic studies of the practice have focused on the remedial role of “bakseheeh” in Egyptian society where an insular elite persistently suppresses real wages and consequently prevent the rise of a middle class. However, for some time now, the concept of “baksheesh” as a practice with an integral social role has been resoundingly rejected by academics. Because of the variability of tourism flows, “baksheesh” simply cannot be considered as a significant source of income for Egyptians, and does more to take away from many a traveler’s experience in Egypt.
The reality is that Egyptians operating close to points of mass tourism, such as large hotels, Nile cruises, or large tour bus parking areas know that tourists come with a degree of disposable income and are not immune to what they see. This unfortunately banks on a person’s good nature, but is not in any way an indication of desperation on the part of those soliciting “baksheesh”.
The Egyptian state heavily subsidizes food products, utilities, and fuel, and most are able to rely on their families. Baksheesh is bad because it creates an impression that Egyptians are destitute, rude and only interested in your money, when this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, those not connected with the mainstream mass tourism industry are some of the most hospitable people in the world.
Furthermore, because travelers often feel uncomfortable seeing stark contrasts in Egyptian urban and rural life, they feel obliged to help those they perceive to be in need. Because this approach works more often than it shouldn’t it perpetuates a culture of rentierism which is self-fueling, while being completely unproductive. At Egyptian Sidekick, we believe there is a better way, one which ensures the dignity of all parties involved.
The Egyptian government and tour operators know that guides and drivers will solicit tips, and as a result depress real wages in the tourism sector, letting those actually doing the work to rely on the good-graces of their foreign wards. Egyptians are far from being helpless, most come from large families, and strong informal support systems, and the calculations of tour operators and the Egyptian state do little to support the dignity of those working in the sector.
We call on travelers to Egypt to hold strong, and not be sucked in by those soliciting tips, and dole out currency for just any service rendered. Even then, a tip should be no more than 4 to 5 EGP, less than 1 USD per service, and even that is incredibly generous. Many travelers returning to Egypt remark that tips come to about 30% to 40% of the total upfront cost of booking flights and hotels to Egypt – which is ridiculous, and highly frustrating to student travelers and those looking to stretch their travel budgets.
At Egyptian Sidekick we have involved English-speaking, Egyptian university students in supervising the adventures of foreign travelers – these students represent a generation which strives for a level of professionalism which those who have came before them, simply cannot afford, or bring themselves to understand or adopt. That is why traveling with an Egyptian Sidekick is better. From the very beginning, we had rejected “baksheesh” entirely, and insist that you do not tip your Sidekick and driver.
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