The man in front of me in the line at the ticket booth is getting cranky, I can tell, but he’s trying to keep it together.
It’s only when he turns around and walks back past me that he lets it out and vents to his wife. “They’re just ripping us off every time and I’m sick of it,” he spits.
The ‘they’ in his outburst is Sri Lanka and the ‘us’ is foreigners. Because buying an entry ticket to many of the main tourist sites here is not a cheap transaction. One of the country’s most popular attractions, the imposing rock of Sigiriya with a fortress at the top, costs US$30 for foreigners and just 100 rupees (about 30 cents) for Sri Lankans. To save you the maths – the ticket is 100 times more expensive for a tourist than a local! The pricing is similar at the country’s other main cultural sites like the ancient capitals of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura.
It was a few years ago that I witnessed this interaction in Sri Lanka (which, to be clear, has nothing to do with the current economic problems in the country), and I’ve seen many similar situations across the world since. Whenever there is a difference in price for tourism sites and foreigners are charged more, there are always some people who are angry.
Is the indignation justified? Well, there are enough complaints in the reviews online to suggest a large number of people who believe different pricing is unfair.
“What discrimination. Nowhere in the world is this happening except in Sri Lanka. The rest of the world should start charging every Sri Lankan higher prices,” says one Canadian reviewer about Sigiriya.
“I was asked by a silly soldier woman to pay tourist ticket because I was white. Because of this experience I have decided not to visit Sri Lanka anymore and I will not recommend that destination to anyone,” comments a reviewer from Norway about Anuradhapura.
Let me be blunt here – I think these people are wrong. The misunderstanding is that the complainants think foreigner prices have been put up, whereas what’s actually happened is local prices have been put down. In a country like Sri Lanka, where the average wage is US$10 a day, how could most locals afford to visit Sigiriya at US$30 a ticket? It would be the equivalent of an Australian paying $880, based on our average wage.
Heritage is important to protect, and one of the most important reasons to protect it is so it can be experienced by people who appreciate its context – it’s just a pile of bricks, otherwise. And while heritage sites belong to all of us, they are of course especially significant to local populations. It’s more than fair that they’re able to afford to visit the most important landmarks in their country.
This is why the arrangement to have a different price for locals is most prevalent in developing countries. In India, for example, it costs 1100 rupees ($20) for foreigners to visit the Taj Mahal, while locals pay just 50 rupees (90 cents). Khao Sok National Park in Thailand is 300 baht ($12) for foreigners and 40 baht ($1.60) for locals. In Indonesia, it’s US$25 ($35) for a foreigner ticket to the Buddhist temple of Borobudur, and 50,000 rupiah ($5) for locals.
You’ll even find some version of split pricing in wealthier countries. Where I am this week, in the French city of Nice, a three-day pass to see the main museums costs €15 for tourists but is free for residents in this part of the Côte d’Azur. Do foreigners complain about that? Well, possibly – people do like to complain about most things – but I haven’t heard any grumbling. And that’s because it’s understood that locals should have the right to visit their own museums, seeing as these institutions tell their stories… and their taxes help to fund them!
Perhaps if the tourist sites around the world that have a foreigner/local pricing structure just made it free for their citizens, there wouldn’t be such outrage? That’s what happens at Angkor in Cambodia and, because there isn’t a big sign with a cheaper price for Cambodians, nobody bats an eyelid.
What about just making sites free for everyone? That’s the approach you find in places like Washington DC, where the Smithsonian Museums along the National Mall have no entry fees and receive the majority of their funding from the Federal Government. It’s the same in London, at popular attractions like the British Museum and the V&A. And also in Australia, at institutions like the National Gallery in Canberra and most of the main state art galleries too. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking.
But for those Australian sites where you do need to buy a ticket, there’s just the one price, regardless of where you come from. If Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and all those other countries give a discount to their citizens, why shouldn’t ours? Well, because we can afford it. Entry to Uluṟu is just $38 for three days, a tour of the Sydney Opera House is $43, Sovereign Hill in Ballarat is $39. Each of those entry prices is equal to about one hour’s work, based on the average national wage.
So next time you’re travelling and you see an entry sign with a local price, please don’t be like the man who huffed and puffed in front of me in Sri Lanka. Cherish the fact that you’re able to be there seeing some of the world’s greatest heritage – and so is the local family standing alongside you.