A month ago, I told the story of another blogger's experience with over-paying a street vendor in India for a samosa. Instead of the 6 cents a local would pay for the samosa, this blogger was told to pay 30 cents - but he generously went a step further and tipped an additional 30 cents. When the blogger wrote about this, some of his readers were outraged: accepting this inflated "tourist price" was irresponsible, since it pushed the price up for other tourists.
I sided with the blogger.
What's wrong with paying extra prices when we're talking about 60 cents? That 60 cents will mean much more to the vendor than the Westerner. Isn't it a bit silly to argue about getting "ripped off" by the vendor when you consider that much of our wealth in Western nations comes from the exploitation of poorer countries?
Today, I received an email from Rob Meyer, who has responded to my article on his blog, Go Budget Travel. Rob takes a contrasting view, arguing that travellers should haggle with merchants in order to pay local prices. Paying the inflated tourist price encourages poor business models, as locals start to see foreign tourists as cash cows willing to hand over money out of pity:
"Our samosa dealer recognizes the fact that he does not need to be price competitive or even product competitive when selling to foreign tourists, because they will “feel sorry for him” and pay what he charges (competitive or not), so why not take advantage of this?"
In Ecuador, where Rob currently lives, many locals are setting up Eco-Tourism projects based on this same business model: locals run "an unorganized, overpriced project" and count on Westerners to feel sorry for them and pay them what they're charging.
According to Rob, the problem with paying inflated tourist prices is that it creates an "illusion of easy money". We give locals the idea that Westerners are walking banks.
But the truth is, we are rich. It doesn't take a 30 cent tip for a samosa vendor to figure out that a Westerner has more money than he does. He can tell by our clothes, by the camera slung around our necks, or by the leather wallet we pull our cash from.
That "illusion of easy money" is going to be there whether we like it or not. Frankly, it's not really an illusion. For many people in Third World countries, the tourism industry is a modern day gold rush.
If you manage to haggle your way down to paying local prices, what have you achieved? Are you trying to convince the local merchant that you're not that rich after all? You won't.
What's your view? Should we pay the tourist price, or should we haggle it down?