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.


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