Today, I'm picking a bit of a sensitive topic — about a tipping culture in the mountains.
It’s a sensitive topic because this has become a widespread and socially accepted culture, and taking a stance against it raises many eyebrows.
Yet, at Indiahikes, we are trying to discourage tipping. We want to bring about a different way of working, where all our team members earn good salaries and have their own dignity of labour.
This is where we are stuck in a constant battle. Several trekkers want to tip, many guides like to receive tips, and here we are, trying to discourage the practice.
There are multiple reasons for this:
1. An unfair distribution of tips:
This is our biggest grouse against tipping. Most trekkers resort to handing personal tips and not tips for the whole team. We notice that most of the tips go to the front-end team members — usually the guides, sweepers or the technical guides, who are immediately visible to trekkers. Trekkers form strong bonds with them and feel obligated to tip them while leaving. We hear statements like, “it is only because of you that I could complete the trek.”
We have seen these tips extending to very expensive gifts — jackets, mobile phones, trekking shoes, backpacks — all from high-end brands and models — given to them personally. Sometimes a large amount of money is given to them as well.
While the gifts and tips come with good intentions, this habit does gross injustice to everyone else who has worked equally hard or harder to make the trek possible. "The cooks, who toil day and night with calloused hands, ensuring meals go out on the coldest of nights. They rarely interface with the trekkers. The helpers, who take care of the most physical work on a trek, are never seen at the forefront. These people are the backbone of the trek. They make the trek possible. Yet, their effort goes largely unnoticed,” says Lakshmi Selvakumaran, head of Learning and Development at Indiahikes.
Many trekkers come back to us saying it may be happening in a few groups. But we notice most tips in our groups go to a few, the highest amount going to the guides and the lowest to the helpers.
2. Tipping started as a culture where guides worked privately with trekkers. This is not the case when you're trekking with Indiahikes:
When you look back on the tipping culture in the mountains, a lot of the culture comes traditionally from the West, where tipping for services is the accepted norm. Even in trekking trekkers pay their private guides a handsome tip for the services offered. This guide is usually the one-stop person who takes care of the whole trek for the trekkers. Such systems still exist in India, Nepal and in trails like Kilimanjaro, where you can hire your own personal guide. Tips do make sense in such a scenario.
This is not the case with Indiahikes. Guides, cooks, helpers, all mountain staff are employees with Indiahikes. The model of working is different. In such a culture, you wonder whether tipping is a valid system at all.
“Most guides and other staff work on a seasonal basis with us, which could last anywhere from 2-4 months. So with their daily wage over many months, they earn a good salary for the kind of economy they live in. It is among the highest paid jobs available in the region. Those with specialised skills (guides, cooks, technical guides) earn a lot more,” says Nayana Jambhe, Head of Operations at Indiahikes.
Our aim is to make locals more and more employable with rigorous training. “We have been conducting continuous training programs to make them better skilled — whether it is guides, cooks or helpers. We have opened up training programs for even those who don’t work with us, with the help of organisations like Uttarakhand Skill Development Mission (UKSDM),” continues Nayana.
“Over time, many of them work as full time employees at Indiahikes. We would like their aspirations to grow and their income to become sustainable in the longer run. Their job should be no different from the jobs we have,” she adds.
3. Tipping alters behaviours and affects the experience:
Time and again we have seen this happen, where staff members interfacing with trekkers choose to help a more affluent trekker, who is more likely to hand out a tip. They hand-hold them, share stories with them, stick around with them through most of the trek. Most of the other trekkers go ignored.
This goes completely against the trekking culture we are trying to build.
Our entire vision is based on one thought, that Everyone Must Trek. Whether it is a student, a loan-burdened person, a family below the poverty line, everyone must trek. The impact of trekking on anyone is enormous, and it must never be reserved for any particular class.
Nobody interfacing with our trekkers must favour one trekker over the other. It bothers us to no end.
There are several other reasons why we discourage tips — it makes people begin to expect and ask for tips, it brings down the morale of team members that do not receive tips, it builds a sense of mistrust, it goes against the idea of a good salary and dignity of labour.
Our solution: We are still coming up with a solution to this issue, if trekkers still feel obligated to hand tips. We want to bring in a common collection, where trekkers receive a receipt for the amount paid. The amount being distributed equally among all staff members at the end of the week / month / season.
But ideally, we want to see a day where everyone aims to be more skilled and experienced, and are able to work permanently / semi-permanently with us, based on their skill.
We don’t want to see a world where team members are driven by tips and aspire for more tips rather than long term career growth.
Do let me know what your thoughts are on this.