Should foreigners pay more?
That was the question back at the beginning of summer when a heated discussion ensued among travel bloggers on Facebook. At the center of the debate was the tendency of some world governments to charge foreign visitors more than locals to enter a national monument, archaeological site or wildlife park.
The whole thing took off when a travel blogger railed on her FB page against the Sri Lankan government for charging $15-$30USD for foreign travelers to visit a lesser known monument while locals enter the monument either free or at a very minimal fee. I was stunned to see how many travel bloggers jumped on the bandwagon and agreed how horrible to was to run into that kind of market segmentation.
My reaction was….
Wait a minute. You’re privileged enough to be travelling in an incredible place like Sri Lanka…a place I dream to visit one day…and you’re complaining about fees to enter a park?
Why Should Foreigners Pay More than Locals, Dammit!?!
This particular traveler (who I intend no ill will towards by writing this article) was indignant in the Facebook discussion because she had to pay so much more for her experience than the locals. She felt discriminated against and felt that her “job” as a traveler was not to make other people richer.
A lot of the arguments supporting this person bounced from the thought that the prices were exploitative to the thought that all this money was going to corrupt bureaucrats. Others stated that these countries were driving away tourists. Still others felt that this practice would inevitably lead to prices so high that the budget traveler would eventually be unable to visit these parks and monuments.
I for one don’t buy any of it and have very little sympathy for those on the complaining side of the discussion. Here’s why.
Foreigners SHOULD pay More Than Locals, Really?
As Bret Love of Green Global Travel said “Travel is not a right, it’s a privilege”.
I know very well that many of us travelers are not loaded with money and that we work very hard to save and make thoughtful travel plans. So I get it. I’m not a wealthy traveler. I too have worked very hard to be where I am and I’ve worked very hard to have had the experiences I have had. Having slept under bushes in city parks for a week on my very first trip to Paris, I know about budget travel.
That said, the fact that you or I are able to travel to one of these amazing places means we are privileged. A lot of the places we visit have large portions of the population who struggle just to put food on the table each day. Most of us clearly don’t have that problem. By visiting, we are contributing to the local economy and helping to create or sustain jobs for other human beings. The money we spend also often goes to preserving that resource.
I also realize that a significant amount of the money I spend traveling does not ALWAYS go to the “right” people. That is one of the reasons I am such a proponent of Geotourism. We all line the pockets of oil and gas barons and airlines executives just by flying – not to mention the pollution our travel causes. Do ANY travelers go and chase down every penny they spend travelling just to make sure it goes to the “right” people? No. So why the focus on the possibility that the national park people might be skimming money off the top?
Look. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be concerned about corruption and where our money goes but let’s approach this in some sort of logical way. Instead of just assuming that the extra amounts tourists pay goes to some corrupt fat cat, why not do some research and find out if that is actually true? And if it is, think about how you, the visitor, can possibly change that result.
Yes. You do have a responsibility. In fact, your job as a traveler IS, in part, to make the host citizens richer. You may not agree but I’ll go so far as to say…you’re wrong.
In my opinion, paying a bit more than the locals is the LEAST we can do as visitors. I think we should be thankful that we’ve even had this opportunity to contribute considering how damaging travel and tourism can be.
I guess the argument could be made that every ancient monument or national park is somehow a World Heritage site belonging collectively to all humanity and so should be equally shared and accessible to everyone. Come one, come all!! On the surface this may sound nice and tidy but it smacks of a form of “partage” to me. It isn’t hard to see that the historical, cultural or environmental assets of a nation belong to the people of that nation and that, therefore, the people of that nation should have the right to access their particular resources. In fact, they are entitled to a higher right to access those assets.
Then there is the fact that maintaining those resources costs money. Consider. The citizens of that nation are surely paying the taxes necessary to manaage that resource. They’ve already paid more than you have. Governments have a responsibility to their citizens. Or should. It is the host government that needs to decide how much to charge for a particular attraction in order to maintain that attraction. Infrastructure, salaries, conservation measures and research don’t come cheap – or free for that matter. The job of the host country is not to tax its citizens more for the visitor to be able to access places for free.
That the citizens of the host country possess an inherent right to access those resources at a reduced fee or in fact for fee seems to me at least, beyond discussion. If you can afford to travel to a certain destination but you can’t afford to visit any of the sites you want to see then maybe you didn’t plan well enough. Or maybe you didn’t even think the whole thing through.
I rarely hear complaints when students or senior citizens pay less for things like movie or train tickets. I don’t hear many complaints when Applebees or Burger King offers meal discounts to seniors and I never hear a complaint when serving military personnel get privileged prices or seating on flights. Most places don’t offer these discounts out of the goodness of their hearts. They offer those prices because they know what that particular market segment can afford. The tendency to charge tourists (yes, YOU a tourist no matter how much you want to think you are some specialized “traveler”) more than locals often is just the reverse of that market segmentation way of thinking. Simply put, because you have the privilege to travel to these places you must be able to pay more and therefore should pay more.
Here is where the hypocrisy kicks in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting in a bar somewhere and some poor tourist cum traveler is whining over the $10USD they paid that day to visit some amazing cultural resource or to photograph some fascinating cultural event or see some incredible wildlife…whining while sucking at their third or fourth $5, $10 or even $15 alcoholic drink and Tweeting or Facebooking it out to the world on their $200 Iphone.
The urge to cry out, you poor freaking baby. Get a grip! Is huge. It’s hard to control.
This practice isn’t an anomaly. In Cambodia foreigners pay higher prices for bus fares. In Argentina foreigners often have to pay more for airline tickets. South Africa charges foreigners more to visit their national parks. While in India I had to pay more to visit monuments than the Indians did. I’ve visited the Hermitage in St. Petersburg a number of times and each time I had to pay more than the Russians…never mind that many of those gold-drapped Russians had far more money than I could ever muster. But really people, we’re talking pennies in most cases. Go ahead and pay it.
In many places I’ve run into people who will only allow you to take a picture of them – but only if you pay them. As a photographer I have an ethical debate going on inside constantly over this kind of transaction. I’ve heard a lot of photographers and people complain about it. Yet, I might make money by selling the photo of someone I meet on the road. My portfolio is certainly enhanced by the presence of great portraiture. So…why shouldn’t the subject of the photo make some money? Why should I be able to exploit that person for my own gain and give nothing in return?
Tourism does indeed have the opportunity to right many of the economic imbalances of the world. To be honest, I think the complaints I’ve heard about these differentiated fees demonstrates some extreme entitlement issues that should be rather embarrassing to those doing the complaining.
For me, shelling out the higher amounts I have for experiences from hours in Peter’s Kunstkamera or the old Portuguese lighthouse above the entrance to the Mandovi River or at the Panama Canal were well worth it. Many of those were some of the best experiences of my life.
Spend the money or walk away. Either way, get over it.