'Tourist price' versus 'local price': Why it's OK to be overcharged if you're a tourist

There's nothing worse than being charged the "tourist price". It feels like such a rip-off when the tuk-tuk driver inflates his prices for dumb foreigners, when the market vendors charge more because you don't speak their language, when the bar stings you for a large beer when you only ordered a small just because you won't understand.

It feels like you've been scammed. Like you've been cheated or robbed. The tourist price sucks.

But I'm here to tell you that it's not actually that bad. In fact, in plenty of cases the tourist price is completely fair.

There are several misunderstandings at play here. One is the whole concept of pricing, which everyone assumes is static, the way it is back home. It isn't.

In most of the world, price isn't a fixed thing that's stamped on a box or affixed in a meter. Prices are fluid. They're in constant motion.

When you haggle with someone at a market you're not attempting to get them down to the "correct" price, because the correct price doesn't exist. You're trying to get them to a point where both of you are happy with the amount being charged, and a transaction can take place.

So if someone in a market or driving a tuk-tuk charges you more than they charge the locals, they're not ripping you off. They're just reaching a price that's agreeable to them, and agreeable to you. You make the transaction, everyone is happy. If you're not happy, you walk away.

And even if you are routinely being charged more than locals for the same goods or services or attractions or experiences, is that such a problem? Is that so wrong? I'm not talking about scams here – just prices being routinely inflated for tourists. This happens all over the world, and it's far more institutionalised than you might expect.

It even happens in Australia. If you're a local Tasmanian planning to visit MONA in Hobart, for example, you'll enter for free. Everyone else, meanwhile, will pay the "tourist price" of $30. Is that a rip-off?


Same thing happens at the Taj Mahal in Agra. Locals can enter for 50 rupees, or about $1 Australian. Foreigners, meanwhile, will have to pay 1100 rupees, or $22. Again, is that tourist price unfair?

Mostly, of course, the tourist prices travellers encounter are a little more underhanded, a little trickier. And even that exists all over the world, not just in the usual suspects.

Take the tourist-heavy town of San Sebastian, in northern Spain, for example, where a local newspaper recently launched a sting operation to catch out the city's bars charging tourists more than locals for food and drinks.

They found several. Some bars were bumping up orders to larger sizes when they were made by tourists, with small beers magically becoming large beers when they got their bill. Other bars, meanwhile, had items priced completely differently for those ordering in English: a 2.20-euro croquette became a 2.70-euro croquette for foreign customers.

The reaction from travellers to news like that is usually anger. Why should visitors be charged more for the same attraction, the same food, the same drink as the locals? Why should we be discriminated against just because we're foreigners?

And I get that. The dishonesty in the San Sebastian bars, in particular, is galling. However, maybe we're looking at this the wrong way.

Instead of seeing this as tourists being charged more than locals, look at it as locals being charged less than tourists. Imagine that the tourist price is the "correct" price: locals are just getting a discount on that because this culture, this history and this passion that you've come to experience as a tourist is theirs.

Locals deserve to have access to their own cultural heritage. It has to be affordable. It belongs to them. That might mean that entrance to a major historical site, a visit to a museum, or a sampling of local bar culture is cheaper for them. But it's theirs to enjoy first and foremost.

I don't have a problem with that. I know of some very expensive restaurants in San Sebastian, for example, that quietly give discounts to local residents, because this food they're serving is the residents' cultural heritage, and they should be able to afford to enjoy it regularly. That seems completely reasonable to me.

Same goes for the bars too, though I dislike the underhanded nature of it. And the same goes for MONA and the Taj Mahal and all of the world's art galleries and museums and historical sites that give discounts to locals. Those residents should have access to their own culture. They shouldn't be priced out of their own heritage. If that means discounts are necessary, so be it.

For travellers, that means taking a little hit to your pride. It means ignoring the feeling of unfairness, of having been ripped off, and just accepting things as they are. You're a tourist, and you pay the tourist price. That's fair.

How do you feel about the "tourist price"? Is it a rip-off, or reasonable? Are there some instances where it's fair and some where it isn't? When have you been charged the tourist price?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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