Should Tourists Pay more than Locals at Attractions?

A couple days ago, a massive debate was spewed all over twitter when I made a couple comments about Borobudur Temple in Indonesia’s policy of charging tourists a massive rate higher than locals.  I’m at a bit of a loss for answers, and I don’t stand to one side particularly too strongly.  However, I am of the belief that fleecing tourists is a tired game that can’t be sustainable unless that attraction really is worth the elevated rate of admission.  I’m not sure Borobudur is, but for the sake of a blog debate.  Let’s discuss the idea behind tourists paying more than locals.  In an attempt to be completely biased, I’m going to look at both sides, and the arguments for and against it.

Borobudur Temple

Idea Behind Tourists Paying More

Of course, no one can outwardly come out and state the reason why tourists pay more at certain attractions because every site has their own reasons.  I can tell you, this isn’t something that happens only in Indonesia.  I’ve encountered this as well in many other locations around the world; everywhere from Zambia to Honduras has similar rules.  They have their reasons behind doing so as well.  Of course, for as many arguments for it, there are equally as many against it.

Arguments for It

Supply and Demand

The idea of free market economy claims that if tourists are willing to pay a premium, then they should.  Why would a business ever charge $3 when the vast majority of people would pay $10.  It doesn’t make logical sense.  However, in Indonesia, if they charged $20 for everyone, there would be foreigners and only a select amount of Indonesians in the site.  The solution is to create a split system to maximize profits.  You can’t really blame a place for trying to turn a profit.

Allowing the Locals to see their Country

The prevailing idea behind why tourists pay more is that it allows locals to visit sites in their own country rather than having them hijacked by foreign tourists.  I think lots of people even in Europe would agree.  I mean, as a French person wouldn’t it be nice to be able to visit the museums without paying a premium?  They are “yours” of course.

Locals couldn’t Afford to Visit otherwise

Tied to the previous argument, in developing nations people talk about the idea that locals wouldn’t be able to enjoy their own parks and monuments if the prices were set too high.  Well the average income of an Indonesian is about $3,000-4,000USD a year, and the average European might be somewhere around $50,000USD a year, the $20 to pay entry is about equivalent to what locals pay.

Tourists don’t pay more, locals get a discount

Perhaps a PR mistake is the way these places advertise the prices.  Instead of showing that there is a separate local and foreign price, they should instead mention a discount for locals.  Then, at the very least, it doesn’t look like someone is being extorted, it looks like the locals are getting a discount to visit their own parks.

Borobudur Monk

A visiting monk at Borobudur Temple, Indonesia

Arguments Against Charging Tourist More

Where do we Draw the Line?

Obviously, this is the problem and much of it hasn’t been drawn yet.  If the claim is that tourists can afford to pay more, than they should, then where does it end?  If I go to a restaurant should I pay 10x the price for a hamburger?  It’s already the case, in Indonesia especially, that taxis and buses charge a higher rate.  Moreover, as an example, in Banyuwangi drivers would just leave us at the side of the road if we didn’t pay triple what the locals were paying for the same journey.  It can set a bad precedent.

Would be “Racism” or at least “Unfair” Elsewhere

Many claim that if this type of practice was done in “the West” that we would be seen as racist or at the very least greedy.  And well I don’t believe that to be the case, I do think it would be interesting to see the reaction of people coming to Canada to find out that our prices are 10x for foreigners than they are for locals.  Imagine we charged $40 for entry into somewhere like the hotsprings in Banff National Park while the price for locals was $2.  I’d actually love to see the reactions.

Not all Travellers are Rich

The charges make the assumption that all travellers are rich.  And, obviously, if most people are travelling, they at least have more money than they “need”.  However, many travellers are on a very tight budget and prices that are extremely high for tourists might also make these places inaccessible to them. I ran into a number of people that had to skip Borobudur because they couldn’t afford to pay the $35 to do the night tour.

It’s not about the Locals, it’s about Ripping-off Tourists

Lots of people point out that the fact is that the claims of “being open to locals” is just an excuse for a rip-off.  Of course, if a site really cared about allowing locals to see their own sites then they wouldn’t just be cheaper, they would be free.  Borobudur is 30,000Rp for locals which means that a significant amount of locals still wouldn’t be able to go in.  It’s just another excuse to rip off tourists.  It’s just business and the local issue is just an excuse.  The price for locals will constantly be raised until it reaches a threshold, just the same as foreigners.  In the case of Borobudur, it’s not about the locals, it’s about making money.  At least that was how I saw it.  In other cases, it may be different.

Aid Money Contributes

One of the most Neo-Colonial attitudes I’ve heard, and I’ll admit that I even thought it myself, refers to the idea that we’ve put a lot of money of aid into restoring and protecting sites like this.  Borobodur, for example, was largely funded by a massive UNESCO project to begin with.  Then, after the 2006 earthquake in Indonesia, loads more international money went into the site.  And though I don’t agree with the thought, lots of tourists are asking how we can give, and not be given equal opportunities to see the sites.

Borobudur Temple

Is it us who have the System wrong?

One of the most interesting things that came out of the debate about tourists paying more was the idea that maybe we have it backwards in the West.  I know that in Canada in particular, we make are parks incredibly accessible to the world.  For example, Banff National Park, the world’s second oldest national park,  and one of the most well-maintained as well, welcomes around a million tourists each year and charges $9.80CAD for entry.  It doesn’t matter if you’re from Canada or Cambodia, that’s the rate.  But in reality, Canadians actually pay more than foreigners, essentially, even if we don’t use the park.  How is that?  Well, the park fees don’t cover the cost of the maintaining the park, and Canadians have a chunk of their taxes that go into the parks.  Would it be wrong if we boosted the price to say $20, while keeping the $10 rate for Canadians?

Should WE Charge Foreigners More?

It’s an interesting thought, and of course it would cure a couple problems that many Canadians have with the parks system.   Moreover, the added cost that foreigners would have to pay would put more money into the pot of a park’s service which, under Stephen Harper’s administration, has become greatly under-funded.  But how would foreigners react?  I imagine that those who noticed, would act shocked and upset for a couple minutes, maybe complain about it and then move on, the same way tourists do at Borobudur Temple.

When thinking about this backwards, you really see why they do it in places like Indonesia: because they can.

Is there an Alternative Model?

There were a number of alternative models provided in the debate.  My favourite seems to be the most logical and lends to the idea that the park is both accessible to the local people while still drawing money from tourists.  It’s the model used in Tulum, Mexico, which was mentioned to me by fellow traveller Dave Dean of “What’s Dave Doing?”.

Tulum is a busy park, but it’s also incredibly well maintained.  From an archaeological standpoint it’s similar to Borodudur, although it features multiple smaller temples, rather than one big temple.  The way things are run in Tulum are simple.  The price is about $5 for everyone throughout the week, local or foreign. Then, on Sundays, any local can visit for free.  It gives the locals who can’t afford the $5 fee a chance to explore the site as well.

For me, the ideal situation would be to make these parks free for locals everyday, and just have an option for them to donate whatever they can.  Of course, the issue with that is that is that anyone can get into the park, and the park administration would to monitor for security, which they already do.  In the case of Borobudur, they don’t even manage that and you’re hassled by postcard and necklaces salespeople nearly the whole time.

Monke Borobudur Temple

Final Thoughts

I hate the idea that one type of person pays more or less than any other; it tears at my sense of oneness among people.  For me, it only helps enable division rather than fostering global unity.  On the other hand, I completely understand that travel is a right.  We are guests in other countries, and that’s a privilege.  It’s a country, person, or business’ right to charge whatever they want.  Value is relative, as we learn so quickly through bargaining in places like Southeast Asia.  A great deal to one is a rip-off to another.

I don’t agree with the use of split pricing between foreign tourists and locals.  I wish it weren’t the case.  However, I completely understand why it’s done.  So for now, this it appears is a debate that will continue.

Thoughts?

What do you think?  Have you gone somewhere that you had to pay more as a foreign tourist? If so, where?  How did you feel?  Do you think it’s right?  What side of the debate do you stand on?  Do you think your home country should put split-pricing in place for tourists if it doesn’t already have it?  Debate people, debate.


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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22 Comments

  1. I know you said that you are on either sides of this debate but I will say that article was written heavily leaning to one side haha
    I agree that the locals should have entry fees be cheap or free compared to foreigners.
    The only time that I have been in a travel situation and noticed that others were getting in cheaper than me was actually when I was crossing the Botswana border into Zimbabwe. I’m not sure what the locals of either country was paying but I know it was pretty cheap and that was fine but what really irked me was that I had to pay $75 when the Americans and Europeans around me only had to pay $30. That was messed up.

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    • Haha, Cailin. I’ve actually turned to believe it should happen… but I think it should be a discount for locals rather than 2 different prices.
      Anyways, about the Zim border, that’s a political issue, and completely normal. As a Canadian we pay $60 for a Turkish visa well others pay about half.
      But you’ve never jumped into a bus and found out you were paying twice the price of everyone else?? Seriously, if that’s the only issue you’ve had, you gotta get out more. haha.

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      • Maybe I just don’t care enough to notice it other places haha

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        • I’m going to start calling Miss Moneybags. haha

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  2. I already commented the first time you posted about this, but I personally have no problem with the idea that tourists should pay more than locals, particularly in poor countries. If you have the money to travel abroad for fun you are already significantly more well off then most locals. In which case I think it’s fine that your higher admission price is subsidizing their lower one.

    As for paying more for buses, food etc., it is annoying, but how can that even be combatted? If you don’t like the way they run their economy the only solution is not participate by not visiting. Otherwise, I’m willing to suck up the foreign tax. After all most of these people need my extra 50 cents far more than I do.

    Actually I think the bigger issue is that this UNESCO site is so incredibly expensive in the first place, not the price disparity.

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    • Yeah Steph, I agree with you.
      I think a lot of the problem stems from the fact that Borobudur is run by two organizations: 1) for the preservations and 2) for business. The business side is the one jacking up costs for profits. UNESCO really needs to step in there, I think, because there is definitely some abuse of the funds going on. Besides that, it’s astounding to me how this tiny site can charge more than places like Ankor Wat? Crazy.

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  3. I have no problem with visitors paying more than locals in countries where the local income is many multiples lower than that of the average tourist. These parks and monuments often need a lot of money for maintenance, for a start, so of course the visitor should pay whatever the market will bear – especially since they’re only likely to visit once.

    Having set that fee, then logically the locals’ fee has to be much lower – basically, what locals can afford to pay without driving them all away.

    Westerners do sound a bit spoiled to me, when they complain about this. After all, the fee is probably only a tiny fraction of the money they’ve spent on their whole trip.

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    • Good points Tim.
      I think, when the case of Borobudur is raised, is that lots of that money that foreigners pay doesn’t actually go into the local hands, but some business owner in the city.
      I honestly have no problem paying more than locals, if what I’m paying is going to the site and local development. But I’m fairly sure that the money paid by tourists goes elsewhere in this, and many cases.

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  4. I almost commented on your Facebook post on the subject, but didn’t want to get into a debate with anyone. I paid so much more than locals did in Sri Lanka for admission to the UNESCO sites. They ARE well preserved but it was pretty outlandish at $40. That’s really a lot in Sri Lanka. I think locals paid more like $5, which is still a lot for them. It happens all over the world, though. At Disneyland, for example, Southern California residents pay less. Of course I like the policy there but not when I’m on the wrong end of it.

    I think the best solution is less of a discrepancy. In Laos, I paid more to see the waterfalls, but only by 50 cents. I wasn’t bothered.

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    • Yeah Kristin. It’s the discrepancy that’s crazy to me. But again, I really do understand it. I think that the biggest problem for me is that I see the site is completely mis-managed and wonder whose pockets are getting full on that money.
      I’m a big fan of local discounts, I think it’s important in making sure locals don’t get their attractions hijacked by tourists. I also don’t mind paying more than locals. I just want to see that money going into local development rather than the hands of big wigs.

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  5. I can really see both sides of the story as well.

    On one hand, I think the entry fees for locals (particularly in poorer countries) have to be cheaper because it is just completely unfair to price them out of being able to see sites in their own countries.

    On charging foreigners more – well tourism is a large contributor to the GDP of alot of these countries and (assuming the money does stay in the community – which is a whole different matter), the extra fees we pay hopefully help towards improving the community.

    Having said all that, I am one of the very not rich travellers and I have had to forego sites on occasion because I just can’t afford the prices. Still, I am privileged to be able to afford to be travelling at all.

    So, I guess yes it’s unfair, but like you said, I can see why it happens.

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    • Thanks for the comment Heidi.
      I think, for me, the biggest issue, and why the rant came out on twitter, was that I really couldn’t see that the money was going back to the community. It seems like some bigwigs in the cities are pulling all the profits. Corruption is a huge issue in Indonesia, and I think these UNESCO sites aren’t completely excluded from that.

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  6. I agree with Steph — I think the bigger issue is that Borobudur charges a very high entry fee for what you describe as a relatively small site. (I haven’t been there myself, so all I have to go on is your description.)

    As for locals paying less than foreigners, I have no problem with that at all — particularly in developing countries, where locals could never afford the entry fee tourists pay.

    As for your argument that some travelers can’t afford expensive destinations — really, don’t say that ever again within earshot of a local living on a few hundred dollars or less each month. It does not make you look good. If you can afford to transport yourself to Indonesia, if you can afford that expensive camera, that iPhone, that computer, you CAN afford Borobudur.

    Let me give you two very different examples of lower fees in action.

    Example 1: Angkor. Foreigners pay $20/$40/$60 for one-/three-/seven-day passes. Locals pay less — I tried to verify the exact amount but couldn’t find it online.

    As a result, you see tons of school groups at Angkor. Young children who live in a country where the odds are more against them than perhaps anywhere else in the world are given what is most likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see their country’s greatest cultural achievement.

    $20 per day is a lot, particularly in Cambodia, but Angkor is 1) enormous 2) diverse 3) unique. But in Siem Reap you can stay in a $5 guesthouse and eat $1 meals, so it’s not an overall expensive expedition.

    Example 2: Some clubs in Las Vegas offer local women free entry one night each week. (Why just women? Because clubs always strive for a ratio of four women for every man yet are met with the opposite ratio, but that’s another issue for another time.)

    I’ve always viewed that as a nice gesture to local women because it says, “We don’t just care about the tourists. We love our locals, and they deserve special treatment.” Additionally, it’s a good business move for the clubs, since local women are the ones who are more likely to visit on multiple occasions and bring their visiting friends (because everyone who lives in Vegas has visiting friends!), and that loyalty is a powerful thing.

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    • Obviously, Kate. Tourists have enough money to travel, than they have more than they need. Period. I think that argument is silly. If you, as a tourist, can’t afford to visit somewhere, then don’t. However, when heritage sites like this are over-priced, it can lead to elitism. Honestly, I don’t mind when prices are really high, it means that there’s fewer people in the sites with me.
      As for Angkor Wat, those prices sound VERY reasonable. Here’s the breakdown: Angkor Wat is said to cover as much as 400 Square Kms. Borobudor is 2.5. So the question is, are tourists paying too much at Borobudur, or too little at Angkor Wat? Other temples in Indonesia, I was paying 2-3 dollars entry. I would have said 10 would have been fair for Borobudur.
      Don’t get me started on the free entry for women. As a feminist, it makes me angry. As a proponent of gender equality, it drives me crazy. But, that’s another debate for another time.
      As you said, I love that gesture. And the conclusion that I’ve come through this all isn’t that they’re doing it wrong here. My conclusion was likely that we’re doing it wrong. For example, I can’t go to the hotsprings in Banff National Park because I can’t pay the entry fee. If they offered half off, or a day locals got in free, I’d be all over that. Too often we find ourselves restricted from our own sites.
      Anyways, I guess the challenge of this debate is that everywhere is different. Personally, I think Borobodur is ripping tourists off. I think that, in that case, there is some serious corruption and mismanagement going on. But I don’t have the energy nor will to chase that rabbit.
      Cheers for the comment.

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  7. Brendan have you forgotten the rule? Always do as the locals do! And be sure to pick your battles wisely…

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  8. This comment certainly won’t apply to all sites, but there are many cases where local taxes help pay for a site or facilities associated with a site… so often, the locals have already invested their money, and it can be understood why a discount may be warranted (this is why in Europe and North American — I can’t speak for the destinations mentioned in the comments above — many sites offer days with free or discounted admission).

    It can also be argued that residents are often informal “guardians” of sites, so they may be investing time and other resources that make a destination a viable destination for visitors.

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  9. I think you raise a very valid discussion Brendan. There are so many arguments for and against. Certainly a massive price differential is politically very negative and seen as fleecing tourists for all they have.

    Discounts for locals is, I think, the way to go. This is what Disneyland do. The positive effect is that locals are more comfortable bring visitors staying with them to these attractions.

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  10. I don’t know why but each time I see an argument about that discrepancy the same point gets overlooked: how are those sites financed?

    They are not only financed through ticket sales, most of the time they also benefit from government fundings, either direct or indirect.

    This money comes from taxes and tourists don’t pay taxes. So you can see it that way: the local who pays only $5 for his ticket where you had to pay $45 as a tourist already contributed through his taxes, so his ticket might not be so cheap after all.

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  11. I think it can be an OK strategy to charge tourists a reasonable amount more, but a bad strategy to charge an outrageous amount. One site in Sri Lanka, for example, charges foreigners $35 while only charging locals a few cents. This discouraged me from visiting. I also believe there are only a handful of sites in the world that can command a $35 and above entrance fee (Angkor Wat/Pyramids/Petra). So I’ll skip the mediocre sites that I deem too expensive.

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  12. I agree in paying more to a travel site; locals in undeveloped countries should be encourage to visit that places. What I don’t agree is to be charged double or triple or to be asked a huge entry price, only for being a foreigner.
    second thing that I hate is paying for photographing that place; please put the price of it into the ticket price!

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  13. I couldn’t help but notice your article and had to make a few points. I have been living and working in Asia for the last 10 years as a holistic health lactation or in rural areas. I have visited many sites. Angkor Wat is owned and operated by a Vietnamese tycoon who takes in all of the money. People going there are paying for his Jacuzzi. The same thing is occurring with Borobudur, it is owned by a group of Muslims in Jakarta. They are so crafty that they send their money to Singapore where it is tax-free. Indonesia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world according to the corruption indexes done by NGOs. Muslims making money off of a Buddhist site, what has the world come to?

    The arguments made in the article are extremely Western in nature. If one understands and looks at the teachings of Buddha, he was adamant that the monks not charge for their teachings and holy sites and places of pilgrimage and refuge are free of charge to all. He was also a proponent of equanimity, treating all people equally. Charging different prices for different people of different colours flies in the face of conventional wisdom of his basic teachings Therefore, his wishes are not being honoured in the materialistic world of today.

    I am in Sri Lanka and I have done several search engines trying to find out where the money goes from the UNESCO sites. Who owns them. I have drawn a blank there is absolutely nothing, and this makes me wonder, knowing that Sri Lanka is known for its corruption as well.

    This is the stuff the average tourist doesn’t see or more want to see or hear about. They want their idealised version of reality, and don’t want to break that bubble. The arguments given in this article fit within the parameters of that bubble.

    I spent 2015 working in a very very rural area in northern Thailand. The Thais are funny people, having a polite code of silence and never really revealing what they think and feel. I have been afforded the opportunity to have some real conversations with them, but it has taken a decade to get to know them enough for them to speak up. When discussing monasteries now charging interns fees and heavily touristed traffic routes throughout Thailand, they begrudgingly informed me that the Thai people in those areas are no longer Thai, they have become materialistic and Western in overcharge Western people. In essence, they have sold their soul for a bowl of rice according to the more authentic and traditional Thais.

    What I have written about is just the tip of the iceberg.

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  14. I have to add to the previous post. In March 2014 I spent the month at Bodghaya, where Buddha became enlightened, and a UNESCO site. I have been to most of the UNESCO sites relating to Buddha throughout India. None of them, not one, charge money. They are not controlled by corporations or UNESCO. But ultimately by monks who are honouring the wishes of Buddha. I know several of them personally, and they will not budge an inch and a cave-in to the idea of charging money. So, what has occurred is that the local UNESCO Buddhist sites are owned by corporations, or are run by monks who have lost their integrity as a monk and no longer honour their own precepts. That’s why people from the west end up paying more. This is what is really going on behind the scenes, but Western people are absolutely clueless to any of this. I

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