Dual pricing in tourism is a common practice all throughout Asia… and it’s utter nonsense. Here’s why dual pricing is unfair, and what governments could do instead.
If you’ve traveled in Asia, you’ve probably encountered—and debated—”dual pricing” before.
For those not in the know, dual pricing is a practice where ticket prices for sights are determined by nationality, with locals paying less than foreigners.
The extremity of the pricing system varies from country to country. In Iran, we paid 5 to 8 times the local price. In India and Pakistan, foreign tickets are usually 10 to 20 times more expensive than the local variant. And in Thailand, foreigners often pay twice as much as locals. The most extreme example is Petra in Jordan, where foreign tourists pay up to 90 times the local price.
The arguments in favor of dual pricing seem compelling:
- The money is needed for maintenance
- Poor locals shouldn’t be priced out of their country’s sights
- Foreign visitors have more money so they should pay more
- Entry prices in other countries are high, so they should be high everywhere
Many people agree with these… but I’m here to say they’re utter nonsense.
The money is not used for maintenance
It’s not a matter of opinion: maintaining cultural sights is of upmost importance. No one wants to see the world’s heritage fall to ruin.
The problem is that, in countries where dual pricing is common, it’s questionable if the extra income generated is actually used for maintenance.
Plenty of sights we’ve visited in the last year could really use a scrubbing… at least. Having some trash bins on the vicinity wouldn’t be terrible idea, and some signage in English (or French, or Chinese, or anything but the local language) would go a long way. If foreigners are going to be charged more, there should at least be amenities to justify costs.
Of course, all of this is lacking. This raises the question, what happens with the money?
The other day we shared some uncomfortable findings on our Facebook page about millions of dollars of discrepancy in the Taj Mahal’s reported revenue, versus what it should be calculated from reported visitor numbers. No one was surprised.
Poor management is one of the reasons third world countries are what they are, and corruption plays a huge role. Since there’s hardly any transparency or accountability in these countries, it’s reasonable to assume much of the income generated from tickets ends up in the pockets of officials. Even worse, it might be squandered on ill-advised policies and white elephant projects that don’t benefit the local population nor the country.
If ticket revenue was visibly used for maintenance and improvements, the argument for dual pricing would be stronger. But, of course, it’s not.
People are always priced out
Perhaps the most compelling—and most fallacious—of the arguments for dual pricing is that locals mustn’t be priced out of visiting sights. Though it’s a nice idea, the reality is, unless entry is free, someone is always priced out.
The population of the countries where these practices are most common are, generally, poor. Many people struggle to get food on their table, or shoes on their children’s feet. For these people, any price other than free entry is too high.
Even free entry wouldn’t necessarily persuade them to visit a sight, considering the hidden costs of visiting. To start, there’s transportation, food, and accommodation.There’s also the opportunity cost of time. Time spent sightseeing is time not spent making money to feed the family.
People are, and will always be, priced out.
This truth isn’t confined to the third world, either. Not all Frenchmen can afford to visit the Louvre. The same goes for Americans and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This is a sad truth, but it’s the truth.
Conversely, people visiting sights in the third world usually have disposable income. And in these countries, if you have disposable income, you usually have a lot of disposable income. Another sad truth.
For the upper and middle class in these countries, a small increase on an already trivial ticket price will hardly hurt their wallet. They’re also walking proof that the argument of foreign tourists always having more money is far from true.
It hurts the local economy
One of the responsibilities of sustainable tourism is to ensure your tourist money goes into the local economy. Dual pricing systems, unfortunately, have an adverse effect.
If I spend 500 Rs to enter a sight in India, that’s 500 Rs not spent eating or drinking at local restaurants. If I spend 200 Rs to see a museum, that’s 200 Rs I can’t spend on a rickshaw ride.
In short, the more money I spend on sights, the less I have to spend on the local economy.
Some would argue spending the money on the sight is helping the economy. But considering most sights are run by governments, and these governments are notorious for pocketing (and wasting) money, you have to wonder if the money will ever make it back to local economies. I daresay it won’t.
In my opinion, having a fair rate across the board for both locals and foreign visitors is not only equitable, it’s economically prudent. In the case of independent tourists, money not spent on sights is much more likely to end up in the local economy, in the hands of people that need the money much more than some fat-cat official in his lofty mansion.
At face value, dual pricing might seem like a good idea, maybe even a honorable idea, but look a bit harder and you’ll see why dual pricing is unfair, unjustifiable, and unwise.
The price of foreign sights is irrelevant
Dual pricing is often justified by officials pointing out the ticket price is still less than they are in other countries. This argument is the most nonsensical of all.
True, ticket prices for cultural sights and museums are much higher in Western countries than they are in most Asian countries. But so is food. And accommodation. And public transport.
By this reasoning, everything should be made more expensive to foreign visitors because hey, it’s still cheaper than it is back at home! Taking the metro in New York City costs $2.75, so should the metro in Tehran be 90,000 rials a ride? A sandwich in London can go for £8, so should a dosa cost 675 rupees in Hyderabad? I think not.
Purveyors of this argument forget that the cost of living, space, upkeep, and wages are much higher in Western countries. Given the cost of living, a €25 museum ticket in the heart of Amsterdam makes sense. But this does not justify a €10 museum ticket in a country such as Pakistan or Indonesia, where all costs are much, much lower. The two are unrelated.
Many tourists flock to Asian countries precisely because they’re more affordable than the West. By embracing dual pricing, and by inflating tourist ticket prices to rival their western counterparts, officials destroy the allure of visiting their country. Upset tourists, offended by price discrimination, will avoid the country and its sights in the future, hurting its economy in the long run.
Who am I to criticize if I don’t offer a solution?
The solution, to me, seems simple: a uniform price across the board, with special arrangements for students, children, and the elderly. The price point would ideally be somewhere above the current local price, and below the current foreigner price. In many cases, locals prices completely exonerate locals from responsibility for the sight. It is cheaper to enter most sights than it is to get there by public transport.
A uniform price isn’t just fairer, it’s beneficial to the local populations, it shifts more responsibility towards the local population, and such a move might force officials to make better use of the income they do generate.
The next—and more difficult—step? Convincing governments to listen.
Still feeling the financial injustice? Here’s more to stoke the fires: I’m foreign, so I must be rich.