Tourist prices are a common sight when travelling in majority-world countries, but they are not a simple problem.
Consider for a moment these two stories.
Summer Holidays in Thailand
Summer holidays in Japan are a short three weeks compared with the three months we got in Canada in the US.
My coworker Kate and I were especially ready for the break as we had spent a good chunk of the previous week accompanying our students on the traditional school trip. Sixteen hours a day supervising students followed by two hours of meetings leaves you exhausted and ready to unwind.
An overnight ferry to Osaka leaving us with four hours to kill before anything opened in the city followed by another three hours before our departure made sure that we carried our work weariness with us on the plane.
As the plane descended in to Bankok we knew we were on the last painful leg of our sprint to recovery.
The plane landed. The bags took the standard eternity that was probably only really fifteen minutes but felt like fifteen hours and customs flew at the speed of bureaucracy.
Finally, outside we teamed up with another couple that were headed to Khao San Road to grabbed the next cab in line.
“Hi. How much to Khao San Road?”
“1,800 Baht,” answered the cab driver.
“That’s like sixty bucks. Now way we’ll take the bus.”
“Okay, 900 Baht.”
“That’s a bit better. Do you guys want to take the bus? Or the cab?
“Okay, 700 Baht.”
“That sounds good. Lets go.”
Goreme Open Air Museum
Despite sleeping in a cave hotel carved out of the Tufa rock, it was the prayer call that had the power to infiltrate our early-morning dreams filtering in to our slumber and signalling the sluggish start to another day of discovery.
For Muslims, the Adhan is both a call to prayer and a message that there is no God except Allah and Muhammad is his messenger. To me and my friends, it was a regular reminder of the foreignness of our surroundings.
We slowly rose from our slumber taking turns at the tepid shower before assembling at the outdoor tables.
Guidebooks and maps slowly came out along with the standard breakfast of bread, feta-like cheese, tomato, black olives and Turkish coffee. Conversation slowly picked up as the coffee took effect with facts about the churches of the Open Air Museum on today’s agenda punctuating more casual talk.
Eventually, set off on foot to the nearby Goreme’s Open Air Museum. Moving at the speed of a group, which is about a tenth as fast as I like to move, we finally made our way to the museum only to be greeted by a sign in English and Turkish.
The Turkish side read 6,000 Lira.
The English side…48,000.
“What the…! They’re charging us eight times as much to get in.”
“This is wrong. I’m going to have a word with them and get us the real price. Quick, everyone get out your student cards.”
The attendant had no doubt been through this drill many times and wouldn’t budge from the prices and eventually we were stuck paying the unfair prices which wasn’t really all that much money for one of Cappadocia’s biggest attractions.
The Open Air Museum was a refreshing experience providing a tremendous amount of freedom to explore and we quickly forgot our slightly souring experience at the gate as we explored monastic dwellings cut out of the sides of the valley and frescoes in the rock-cut churches.
But it wasn’t long before we noticed a disturbing little pattern with frescoes.
The frescoes on the ceilings and high up the walls were largely intact. Anything within easy reach had been pealed off to be a unique souvenir for some selfish tourist.
Despite tourists paying extra to get in, the Turkish government still couldn’t find enough money to give this UNESCO heritage site the protection it deserved from self-serving tourists.
Tourist Prices: The Good and the Bad
After the initial indignant reaction, I didn’t feel at all bad about paying extra for the Open Air Museum.
After taking a few more cab and Tuk-Tuk rides in Bankok and throughout Thailand, I realised that we still payed about triple the going rate. Cab and Tuk-Tuk drivers still asked tourists for much higher rates than locals, but the airport was by far the worst place to catch a cab with drivers asking a week’s salary in the hope of catching naive tourists unaware.
I was quite angry that the driver would try to take us for so much and that he still got a good deal more than he should have.
But ultimately, are these situations all that different?
Being a cab driver is not a great job wherever you live and it is hard to say that the cab driver is any less worthy of a financial windfall than a UNESCO heritage site.
In Thailand, organised crime and corrupt officials typically demand a cut of tourism businesses. It’s quite likely that my cab driver was handing off most of his windfall to one or both in order to keep the privilege of getting airport fares and probably needed a good number of 10x cost fares to make it profitable.
Is it any different when it is made official?
Should we be so naive as to think that every cent extra that we payed to the Goreme Open Air Museum stayed in the museum?
By paying tourist prices are we supporting a culture of bribery which has been shown to be very damaging?
And is there a substantial difference between the two situations that I described?
Or are my examples specific to these particular situations?
Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.