Spend more than an hour in any major Southeast Asian city as a foreign national and you’ll find that within almost all of them prevails a certain frustrating phenomenon — the “dual price” double standard.
In a region where prices are rarely fixed and bargaining is the status quo, having to spend a bit of extra energy sussing out what a product is really worth isn’t much of a surprise. But unlike the extra dollar spent on a bowl of noodle soup or the mystery charge on a restaurant bill, this particular phenomenon doesn’t just depend on sellers’ whims.
What makes the “dual price” double standard so maddeningly baffling is how it seemingly disregards all logic and fairness by existing in plain sight — usually printed on a sign in a lovely san-serif font, and placed at the entrance of a major tourist attraction.
Temples, museums, pagodas, historical monuments — there seems to be no type of tourist attraction immune to the effect of the “foreigner” fee. So while travellers and long-time western residents alike come to expect the extra dollar spent on breakfast every now and then, the sheer audacity of unapologetically publicising a double standard makes the process of forking over the extra dough at a temple entrance even more frustrating.
The hubris of posting differing prices for “foreigners” and locals, though, does beg the question: where did such hubris come from in the first place? Surely if this practice were so unfair and fundamentally wrong, it wouldn’t be showcased in such an obvious manner. Is there really a sound logical explanation for this blatant discrimination? Are we missing something?
Paying Our (Foreign) Dues
“The difference in pricing in [some Southeast Asian] tourist attractions comes from some attractions [being] seen as part of the cultural patrimony of the country,“ says long-time Southeast Asian resident and travel-industry veteran Tim Russell. He now lives and works in Bangkok, often considered ‘ground zero’ of the dual pricing phenomenon. It’s also where in recent years ever-rising fees for tourists have prompted more serious discussion about its financial validity.
“Many feel like [these attractions] are ‘owned’ by the whole nation, and so locals shouldn’t have to pay to get in. Plus, these attractions are usually maintained by the state using income tax revenues — so, effectively, the locals have already contributed to their upkeep. The same cannot be said of foreign visitors whose contributions are essential in maintaining historic relics.”
This is the common defense for dual pricing at national monuments in countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. With considerable amounts of taxpayer dollars going toward the maintenance of tourist attractions, many argue that it’s only natural that foreign visitors — who are not contributing to this taxpayer fund — should contribute a higher fee to visit. After all, these foreign visitors are likely only visiting places like temples or pagodas as a sightseer. In the meantime, locals return again and again for spiritual or cultural purposes — the reason that the building was constructed in the first place.
Plus, more tourists means higher foot traffic — and for many attractions, the costs of maintenance increase exponentially with every new wave of tourists that enter. Without considerable funding for continued conservation, tourism would be a death sentence for monuments like Cambodia’s ancient Angkor Wat complex, where considerable efforts to shield archaeological sites from barrier-ignorant tourists have had mixed success. Were it not for the massive influx of foreign visitors during tourism high season, these monuments would likely require a significant amount less upkeep to prevent them from falling into disrepair.
So, the extra fee seems a valid defense for a bigger tourist dollar sign. Right?
The Trouble with Transparency
Unfortunately, actually determining just how much of that extra funding is going towards conservation — and how much is going toward lining the pockets of powers-that-be — is a difficult question to answer for most travellers. Even the biggest attractions like Cambodia’s Angkor Wat or Bangkok’s Wat Pho have little to no readily available information about how entrance fees are spent on maintenance. Consequently, determining just how much of those extra dollars are spent filling in the conservation gaps that aren’t covered by residents’ tax contributions is next to impossible.
The trouble is, transparency has never been high priority in Southeast Asia, and very few locally-owned and operated entities have raised the bar for financial transparency. Couple that with the region’s penchant for lining pockets and passing envelopes under tables, and the public will naturally be skeptical of how these extra fees are actually spent. Unless extensive and consistent evidence is provided to prove that extra dollars are funneled towards keeping national monuments in top shape, foreign visitors will continue to doubt the tourism industry they’re pouring money into.
The Vicious Circle
But regardless of the skepticism, these ever-widening gaps in local and “foreign” pay scales aren’t likely to prompt an all-out boycott of travel to these national monuments. After all, travellers who catapult themselves halfway around the globe in search of sightseeing destinations are unlikely to skip out on Angkor Wat over a US$20 (VND420,000) fee.
The unfortunate fact is that the people most skeptical of the double standard are also the most likely victims. Spending a few thousand dollars on plane tickets does tend to breed a sense of “make the most of it”, even if that means shelling out an unfair amount more dough than the locals.
So, with Southeast Asia’s “dual pricing” double standard only on the rise, what’s the breaking point?
“Tourism in many parts of Asia is still relatively in its infancy and […] short-term gain is prized above building a sustainable tourism industry,” says Tim. “Mature tourism markets have realised the value of building a reputation for being welcoming and honest. Many Asian destinations, however, simply see the dollar signs and don’t understand how tourists see it as a dishonest practice. They have no awareness of the negative effect it has on their tourism brand.”
Perhaps enough bad press will prompt some changes in Asia’s dual pricing double standard. Maybe it really will take an all-out travel boycott. Or, perhaps, the rising tide of unfair fees will continue at such a rate that tourists are simply the frogs in hot water, unaware that the temperatures are rising. In the end, it will likely come down to a pretty simple question:
What are you willing to pay?