Passed between tour groups like a baton

I had a window of opportunity to take off work and go to Turkey, a country in which I had substantial interest. I began looking for companies that provided tours there, being mindful that I did not have much time to plan and would be alone.

In part because of the convenient timing, I settled on the 11-day/10-night “Highlights of Turkey” offered Sept. 30-Oct. 10, ’04, by Aegean Tours, Inc. The price with the single supplement was $1,390. After speaking with the owner several times, I sent my money. Thereafter, I dealt with his assistant. The assistant was often not at the work number. He gave me his cell phone number and often did not answer his cell.

Because I was traveling alone in a country about which I had minimal knowledge, I chose a group tour. I had had nothing but good experiences with tour groups, which normally find their own dynamic. One finds some kindred spirits and all is well. Everything in all of Aegean Tours’ literature would lead one to believe that the entire trip was a “group tour.”

I was met at the airport in Istanbul by someone with a sign and taken to my hotel. I asked when the group was assembling. The concierge did not know but was most helpful. He made some calls to a local tour company, which I was told was taking responsibility for me, and said that there was no group assembling for the next three days in Istanbul.

The Aegean Tours literature said there would be a “short orientation tour.” There was none.

The literature said dinner was included. The concierge said that it was not, but after reading the tour description and calling someone in Istanbul, he said that the hotel would provide dinner for me — alone — that night.

I was irate and called Aegean Tours twice. No one answered. I left detailed messages. No calls ever were returned. All I had was a piece of paper which listed pickup times on days two, three and four.

On day two I dutifully waited for a minibus to take me to the spice market and to a cruise on the Bosphorus. The van arrived about 45 minutes late. There were three other passengers. As we drove toward the spice market, one passenger commented that we were driving past his hotel from which he had been picked up an hour before. None of them knew anything about Aegean Tours or who was in charge of the bus or what events would take place that day.

We arrived at the waterfront from which the river cruise boats departed. They announced that in five minutes we would board the cruise boat. There would be no time in the world-famous spice market, much advertised by Aegean Tours, because they were late.

We were told that the four of us on the minibus were going different places, thus I was handed off to another company for the cruise and a new group of people I had never seen before. The cruise was good.

The afternoon held a bus ride to the Asian side of the river, some of which was quite forgettable, then it was back to the hotel — where I was alone for dinner. I don’t mind exploring, but it is not what I had bargained for.

The next day I was picked up for what I imagined would be the highlight of the tour — Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Royal Topkapi Palace — three very extraordinary, world-famous places. (More on this later.) Again there was an entirely new group that had no identity other than being together that day. I made friends with two persons, and we dined together when the “group” broke up at the end of the day.

For day four, the concierge, the one really helpful person, had told me that I would be part of a group going on the 7-day tour of the interior and the western coast. All I had was a plane ticket to Ankara and a piece of paper that indicated I would be picked up at 6:15 a.m. I arrived at the airport and looked around for the “group” but couldn’t find one. Obviously, there was no course other than to board the plane to Ankara, hoping that somehow a group would materialize there.

In Ankara there was a group plus the fourth or fifth company with which I had dealt in four days, Vamos Tours. We traveled together for seven days and got along fine. When we were returned to Istanbul on day 10, we all wanted to have a going-away dinner. Our group of 12, which had been together for a week, was deposited at six different hotels all over Istanbul, making a farewell dinner logistically impossible except for five of us who were highly motivated and carefully planned on our own.

For our sightseeing in Istanbul back on day three, we had a brief introduction to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Both were manifestly short for the importance of these world-class structures so rich in history. I wondered what the rush was, as it was not time for lunch.

We were taken to a carpet shop for a demonstration of various Turkish carpets. They served drinks. A very articulate gentleman lectured. It was interesting. Once he was finished, 10 or so salespersons entered the room for a hard sell of the wares. Much time was spent trying to convince each person to purchase one or more carpets.

Two persons I had met and I left the hustle and went over to the Grand Bazaar. Though commercial, it is a remarkable space and definitely worth visiting, though the visitor may experience sensory overload. The bazaar was listed by Aegean Tours as a place that would be visited, but they did not reveal that this site was consigned to what time one would have “left over” after the commercial hustle.

During our 7-day loop away from Istanbul under the care of Vamos Tours, the hustle was to repeat itself over many times.

There was a ceramics factory. Like the first carpet lecture, it actually provided some interesting information about an important craft, but the focus was the heavy sell.

There were two stops in Cappadocia which were juxtaposed to undistinguished shopping venues and clearly not the best points from which to explore this remarkable geologic and historically significant region of Turkey.

There was a leather goods demonstration, again with drinks and a heavy sell.

There was a visit to a second carpet sales venue. By then I already knew the pitch.

The coup de grace was a visit to a “Turkish delight” (candy) store. There was no pretense about educational value. We were just stuck in a candy store instead of spending time seeing the glories that legitimately are Turkey.

Aegean Tours had advertised that all the events were paid for. The first day in the custody of Vamos Tours, as we drove in our minibus toward our lodging, the tour guide stressed that at our lodging in Cappadocia there was no nightlife, but we were “very lucky,” as we had an opportunity to see special cultural events on our two evenings there. One was a presentation by whirling dervishes. The other was belly dancing. She stressed that we should give her cash on the bus right then so she could get us the “best seats.”

I figured, when in Turkey, experience the culture. It turned out that each event cost $35 or $40. I forked over the money.

Whirling dervishes, of which there are several groups, comprise a sect within the Sufi branch of Islam. The presentation was interesting, if short. However, there were no “bad” seats in the tiny performance venue.

Somewhat chastened, I decided that on the second night I didn’t really want to see the belly dancing. I told the tour guide that I was sleep deprived and that the dancing was late and I wanted to rest up instead. All true. She wasn’t sure if she could get my money back, but she did succeed in doing so, although there was a “penalty” of, I believe, 25%.

To sum up, tour companies can do whatever they want, but fairness requires that they disclose what they are offering for the fees paid.

1) All tours should make disclosures concerning who is in charge, 2) they should have to disclose whether an advertised “group tour” is only a group tour part of the time and 3) there should be some form of disclosure about whether valuable time in remarkable destinations like Turkey will be consumed with involuntary mandatory visits to commercial establishments for “the hustle” (which also raises the very strong suspicion of kickbacks to the tour operators or guides).

Tallahassee, FL

ITN mailed a copy of the above letter to Aegean Tours and was sent a copy of a letter they sent to Mr. Spriggs, as follows.

We have received your letter regarding your recent trip to Turkey. First of all, I apologize for having been late in responding to your letter. My continuous travel caused that delay. We would like to explain how a group tour operates.

A. Since our land operator is a separate entity, their actions and agreements with other companies are their own business. They can hire other companies for transfers, tours or to provide meals to our tour participants.

B. It is solely the hotels’ business to provide accommodations and breakfast to our clients. They have no other business responsibility beyond that.

C. Our land operator is also providing services to other tour operators (like us). As a result, neither of us knows how many people will be joining each group tour. As long as our land operator confirms our request, our responsibility to the client for providing the tour is satisfied. We have no idea how many others will be included as a total group head count; that is none of our business.

D. All group departures have certain time frames for all stops they make to visit sights and museums. This is not the same as having a private tour. Tour participants cannot change this time distribution and timetable during the day. One site may be interesting for you, but it may not be so for somebody else.

E. When visiting stores and markets, it is your decision whether to buy or not to buy any merchandise. We do not receive any commission from any of those sales.

F. We never offer optional tours after the client’s departure. Anything optional must be contracted in writing and in advance before departure. If the client wants to do something different, he must deal directly with the land operator, not the tour guide after departure. What you do with the tour guide is strictly your business and falls beyond the scope of our tour package.

Any complaint and comment should also be addressed to the land operator. Once the client arrives at the destination, the land operator is responsible and in charge of the client.

G. We have been operating these tours for many years and so has our land operator. You are the first person to complain about our tour. There are some people in the world we can never satisfy and that we cannot help.

Finally, we can proudly say that what we promised in our itinerary for the price you paid was provided. We did not promise you the whole world; we did promise to show you a part of the world for less.

Thank you for your patronage.

YUKSEL SAGIRLIOGLU, CTC, President, Aegean Tours, Inc., 4306 Josephine Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705-2533