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June 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 28, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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What to Tip on Your Next Dive Trip: Part II

tips about tipping by the pros

from the June, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In last month's issue, Undercurrent readers had their say about how much, when, who and how to tip. In Part II, we asked dive travel pros for their recommendations, especially about how to tip in Third World countries, and whether being a big-spending American affects the level of service - and ire from others divers - on a dive trip.

Tipping in the Third World

Many liveaboards and resorts suggest a tip of 10 to 15 percent of the overall cost of the stay, but with many of them operating in Third World countries, that doesn't take into account the local salaries and cost of living. A liveaboard of 16 people paying $2,500 and tipping 10 percent each could produce $4,000 in tips for a crew of eight. On $750 a month, they could be kings of their villages. But when tipping is so far above their standard of living, does that have Western habits encroaching too much on local culture?

A few dive operators keep that in mind. Anna Donahue (Jersey City, NJ) says one resort where tipping isn't strongly pushed is Manta Bay Resort in Yap. "Owner Bill Acker states that his employees are well paid, and suggests that guests donate to their Christmas fund instead. The money is then split amongst all staff members as Christmas bonuses. I thought that was an excellent way of dealing with tipping. As Bill puts it, there are a lot of staff workers that make your stay pleasant but you do not necessarily see them or know them as well as the divemasters, for example. This philosophy is more in synch with the Micronesian culture of sharing with the village." (Christmas funds are common throughout Fiji.)

When we asked Bill Acker himself about the tipping issue, he says that not only does a big tip make someone king of the village, jealousy within the staff is a huge problem. "Tips are a huge problem for us. We pay all of our staff at a level so that tips aren't required, but the good ones know how to get the tips and the others suffer for it. I have very seriously considered trying to do what they do in the Philippines, which is quote things as so many Pesos, plus tax and service charge, and then tell all guests, 'Please do not leave money with any of our staff. You have been charged a service charge as part of your package, and every member of our staff will get their share of that money. Furthermore, if someone gave you extraordinary service and you want to reward them, give them a tee shirt, used dive gear, old cell phone, whatever, but no money." I haven't done this because I keep getting talked out of it. Americans don't want to be told what, or who, to tip, Europeans don't want that much money added to their packages, and the same for Japanese. Kind of damned if you do and damned if you don't."

What the Dive Pros Suggest

Lisa Evans (Fort Collins, CO) finds it interesting how different dive operators approach tipping. "At the end of my trip on the Palau Aggressor, they gave us a sheet explaining how important tipping was. Three paragraphs about diving being a service industry, and how hard they tried to please us. But at Manta Bay Resort in Yap, the paper said that we should only tip for outstanding service." And these are both in Micronesia.

So what do professional trip arrangers - the travel agents and dive trip leaders -- suggest? We asked both types about what they advise their clients. It varies, as you can imagine.

Cindi LaRaia of Dive Discovery in San Rafael, CA, recommends 5 to 10 percent of a dive resort or liveaboard, "simply because the price of today's liveaboards have gone off the planet. Really, the crew in Indonesia does not need to receive 15 percent of the cost of the trip." When it comes to figuring out much to tip, she recommends asking ahead of time how they manage tipping. She does not recommend tipping crew separately. "All people on the boat, even the captain, merit a tip and should not be paid individually. A crew tip is shared equally by the crew. If there is a western cruise director, he or she may be paid separately, in some cases. That's why it's best to ask your travel agent to check on the best protocol so there's no confusion or embarrassment at the end of the trip."

Ken Knezick, owner of Island Dream Travel in Houston, TX, says that rather than going on a strict percentage basis, a diver should assess each trip on its own merits and the local country's valuations. "Whether liveaboard or resort, begin by privately asking a few different staff members how tips are handled. In many cases, each will have its own method of dividing a tip. If it appears equitable, offer your tip in one lump sum for them to divide. It is more complicated to try to tip each person individually, but sometimes that may be necessary. Avoid the error of tipping only the English-speaking staff, the macho dive guide or the cute cruise director. There are many more people behind the scenes who are equally critical to your comfort and should be included in the tip. If I err, it is on the side of offering more consideration to the rank and file workers than to the Western staff. A hundred dollars to a jaded dive guide might mean an upgraded iPod, but $20 dollars for a working person in a third-world country may mean that his child can go to school that year."

When Ken Kurtis, owner of Reef Seekers in Beverly Hills, CA, organizes dive trips overseas, he always builds in a pre-set tip amount (usually 5 to 10 percent of the diving portion of the trip cost) that's part of the overall price. "By collecting it up front, I'm not nickel-and-diming people at the end of the trip. And it also means that if everyone had a good time, they're willing to kick in a little more -- I call it 'tip augmentation.' As a trip leader, this also gives me a lot more clout because the places I deal with know that I have control of all of the tip money ahead of time. Doing it this way, because people are usually willing to augment, has also given Reef Seekers a reputation of being very good tippers, and we consistently get good service. And we definitely go places where our group gets perks that other groups don't because the operation knows we will tip well at the end. I don't know if that's the tail wagging the dog, but it works for our groups."

We also asked dive operators worldwide about their tipping policies. Of those who replied, they had one thing in common to say: Tipping is your choice and if you choose to leave one, the amount is up to you. Despite trying to stay impartial, they all wanted to explain why extra money was needed by employees.

"When Americans come here, the dive staff
fights over them. They will work Europeans
half-heartedly and try to get out of guiding
the Japanese, for one reason -- tips."

Renee Knight, who runs Cayman Diving School on Grand Cayman, suggests 10 to 15 percent to divers. Bill Christoffers from Conch Club Divers in Little Cayman says that other than posting a '"Gratuities are Appreciated" sign, he doesn't offer any other suggestions for tips. Staff pool tips unless divers give out individual envelopes. "On rare occasions, I will say something to under-tipping guests if I feel the crew has put forth an unrewarded effort to appease a difficult group. I always appreciate a guest asking for a guideline and I respond by saying. 'Treat it like good service at a restaurant and tip accordingly.'"

On the other side of the world, the advice is the same. Katrina Adams, managing partner at Kosrae Village Dive Resort, says tips are pooled and divided based on everyone's hours worked. "We tell people to tip depending on what they think the service was worth -- extraordinary service deserves a tip, poor service does not. I personally don't like the 15 percent standard. If service is average, I'll leave 10 to 15 percent and if service is poor, nothing."

Are Americans to Blame for Tipping?

Everyone knows Americans are the biggest tippers. "If the boat has divers from many countries, the crew will get a lower amount of tips from the rest of the world, and they know that," says LaRaia. That puts U.S. divers in a dilemma overseas. Will you be taken advantage of by crews only being nice to get tips? Will European divers snub you for ruining Third World travel with your gratuitous money?

Dive operations admit openly that Americans are the best tippers. Of course, they have no problem with that, and many are open about comparing Americans' tip habits to divers from elsewhere. "The Brits rarely leave a decent tip because it's not their norm," says Christoffers. "Fortunately some guests over-tip, which tends to offset those that do not." We're assuming that "some guests" means us Yanks.

When Lisa Evans talks to divemasters, she notices how different the tipping is across cultures. "According to one divemaster in Yap, Japanese don't tip at all. The prices in their restaurants at home include everything, so they don't think about it. Americans are the best tippers, Germans are good. The British are not considered good tippers. When a group of us divers compared notes on the night before the last dives, they all thought I was planning on tipping a lot."

For Bill Acker of Manta Bay Resort, it's annoying. "When Americans come to the Manta Ray, especially in a group, the dive staff fights over them. They will work Europeans half heartedly and try to get out of guiding Japanese altogether, for one reason -- tips."

For this, Americans get bashed by divers in the rest of the world. But David Dornbusch is one who doesn't care. "I've been told by many non-Americans, especially Europeans, that we Americans over-tip. They say that makes them seem cheap, and encourages dive operators to underpay staff, which makes the employees depend more on tips than wages. However, I'm not troubled by making others appear cheap. And the possibility of skewing dive operators' compensation system doesn't trouble me either. If dive operators had to pay more in wages, they would presumably need to charge divers more. So we wind up paying one way or the other. Ultimately, I would rather over-tip than under-tip, believing it's in divers' collective best interest to help dive operators attract the best divemasters and crews possible."

Mike Hofman (San Francisco, CA), usually tips six to 10 percent of the trip cost, and while at the Indonesian resort Raja4Divers last fall, he could tell his tip was above average. "The dive operation manager was very impressed, mainly because the resort is visited mostly by Europeans, whose tipping level is maybe $100 for a week or two. But I know that at this resort at least, everyone gets a share, and they are not paid that much, so it's worth it to be generous -- their service was worth it."

However, Jill Beeson (Kentfield, CA) isn't comfortable with that mindset, especially after a recent visit to Wakatobi dive resort, also in Indonesia. "Wakatobi makes it clear these employees are dependent on tips. I'd rather all this be covered by a higher daily room rate, dive fee, or by the addition of, say, a five percent service charge, leaving the guests at their discretion to tip a special employee."

Jerry Tuttle (Phoenix, AZ) also agrees with that suggestion. "My dive travel agent is a very generous individual, and usually recommends tips in the 10 to 15 percent range of trip cost. But when the trip cost is $5,000 before the overpriced liquor, you are talking serious money. Add to that the need to carry cash for tipping, because some boats don't seem to accommodate credit cards, and the frustration mounts. Who wants to carry an extra $1,000 of cash to cover boat crew tips on a liveaboard in Indonesia? I certainly don't, and I expect that my tips are smaller because of it. My suggestion is for boat operators to include tips in the trip price and let everyone know tipping is not encouraged. That eliminates the issue and whatever bad feelings it creates. "

As the world becomes more Westernized, why not put that in as a common standard across the dive industry worldwide? Sure, prices will rise but then divers won't have to calculate the extra cost of tips to add to their budget, and, like Tuttle, won't have to carry around a wad of cash. However, in an industry where many dive operators are struggling to stay above water profit-wise, they're not about to start paying crews much higher wages. They'll still keep relying on their passengers -- especially the Americans -- to make up the difference.

Truth is, it would be easier for all of us if a proper service fee were tacked on, so the Brits and the Japanese would become part of the tipping equation, regardless of what their cultures dictate at home. It would also be helpful if all travel agents came up with a statement for each boat or resort they served, stating clearly what is proper tipping protocol and the proper amount for each. Cruise ships make it clear and easy, and travel agents ought to as well.

When it comes right down to it, it's up to you how much you tip. Recognize that there is often some presumed social pressure from peers. While you could listen to your fellow divers, still tip what feels right to you. That way you won't go home from any dive trip, good or bad, feeling resentful.

-- Vanessa Richardson

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