Work Abroad

How to Run Your Own Tour Guide Company Abroad

You can make money from tourists.

Some years ago when I was close to losing my mind in Rio de Janeiro, I hung around with an extremely sleazy character called Bobby. He was a Canadian in his 50’s who took around 5 grams of cocaine a day (which may or may not have explained that he had no teeth, I never asked) and whose idea of fun was to dance at a crummy strip joint disco before taking a girl home.

I like colourful people.

Bobby made his money from approaching backpackers in the street in his mile-a-minute delivery and talking them into buying a fake student card, renting an apartment or booking a jungle tour. In short, he was rather a successful middleman.

He talked me into working with him a little and I set up a website called Anything in Rio – as, with friends in the favelas and police stations alike, Bobby claimed to be able to accomplish pretty much anything in Rio de Janeiro. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be strictly legal but it sure as hell was a killer name for a tour guide company.

Happily I came to my senses and realised that embarking on such a business with a crook like Bobby was only asking for trouble. He’d probably have claimed his cocaine intake as ‘expenses’. When I left Brazil I asked my ex-girlfriend, Flavia, if she would like to show tourists around Rio. She had her own car, spoke great English and was about the only person I’d met in 7 months in Rio that I trusted.

It took a while but the email queries for custom tours started rolling in:

How much to get picked up from the airport, taken to see Sugar Loaf and a tour of the samba nightclubs?

I didn’t know. So I’d email Flavia, who was actually doing the work, then add 25% on for my fee which the clients paid as a deposit. The rest they paid to Flavia when they got there. Flavia got some fun cash-in-hand work, the tourists got a local to show them around and I made money by answering some emails.

You, Too, Can Set Up Your Own Tour Guide Company

Of course, you’ll make more money if you run the tours yourself. You don’t need to be a history graduate or an arts buff, mostly your clients will want to know the ins and outs of the city where you live. It helps if you live somewhere like Berlin rather than Bognor Regis (obscure town in the UK) but that’s fine as this could be your ticket to living somewhere really cool, like Venice or San Francisco – other people will want to visit and there’s your business.

First and foremost you need a website. Behind a company website most people imagine offices with secretaries, fax machines and alienating neon lights overhead. Just like the bustling offices of Road Junky where hundreds battle to be the first to drain the coffee machine each morning.

But make sure you get the look right. A website with crap images and layout, spelling mistakes, a weak sales pitch and a forgettable domain like won’t work. People have to feel confident in parting with their cash and that’s all down to design and a winning pitch.

Your Angle

And why did tourists shell out money to come on tours run by Anything in Rio?

Fear. In the age of the internet almost no one shows up anywhere these days and hopes for the best. People like to prearrange, book and plan out their vacation to make sure nothing goes wrong. And, like it or not, they’re probably more relaxed with the idea of booking a tour in Cairo via a company run by foreigners than by Egyptians.

So make sure you pitch yourself as being cooler than the other tour guide companies on the net. Go for the personal angle, fully customisable tours for those who aren’t afraid to spend money. You don’t want to try and make cash from the kind of money the average backpacker has to spend anyway.

How to Bring In Those Tourists

You need a good web promotion strategy. Search for tour guides in Barcelona and competition is tough with the existing bona fide companies offering complicated packages and hotel deals that your stoned ass will probably never get together. But if you can get establish an interesting web presence people will come straight to you.

Spend some time reading about how to be a webmaster abroad and consider what articles you could write for your site that might bring in the right kind of traffic. 9/11 conspiracy theories explained might be the kind of material that potential visitors to New York would find via Google and once they’re on your site there’s every chance they’ll click through to the tours page.

Another trick is to run a really thorough What’s On? Twitter feed that highlights the best bars, cafes, concerts, poetry readings, cinema etc in the city you’re selling. Your Twitter feed should get a good following, attract links and some of those will eventually translate to business.

How Much Money Will You Make?

It depends. Your income is based on how many emails come in, how many you successfully sell and how much they spend. We used to do quite well around Carnival in Rio and then things would die out again until the summer.

On the bright side, you have no employees to pay – you can just piecemeal jobs out to drivers and guides as needed – and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether you need to be paying any tax anywhere. You take deposits via Paypal and if your serice is good then word of mouth should ensure you some more business in the future. It’s the kind of thing that grows.

Running your own tour company may not make you rich straight away, it may not even cover all your living costs but each tour sold will be a nice little windfall which might eventually allow you to give up that nightmare job teaching English.

And if anyone wants to take over my Brazilian tour company in Rio de Janeiro just let me know…