Why the ‘white tax’ is perfectly acceptable

Why the ‘white tax’ is perfectly acceptable

Foreigners often pay more than locals for the same things -- damn right, too

James Durston If there’s one thing guaranteed to get a white, middle-class expat coughing up phlegmy globs of vitriol in his adopted home, it’s the issue of dual pricing -- the infamous system that forces foreigners to pay more than locals for the same thing.

It’s not new, it invariably amounts to squabbling over pennies and it appears to be an especially Asian phenomenon, but anyone who has traveled will at some point feel compelled to put their two cents in.

Three cents if you’re French, please.

Recently, the Asiatique observation wheel in Bangkok was forced to drop its local/foreigner pricing strategy when blogger Richard Barrow started a cascade of indignant comments on its Facebook page about this “offensive” and “discriminatory” strategy.

There are hundreds of other examples -- the Forbidden City, Beijing; the Taj Mahal, India; the whole country of Bhutan; Borobudur in Indonesia; rickshaws and tuk-tuks pretty much everywhere -- and the arguments boil down to this: foreigners are no longer richer than locals, it’s racist and well, damnit, I just don’t want to pay more.

Let’s pick this penny-pinching argument apart, shall we?

Discounts, not hikes

The emergence of a few millionaires doesn't mean Asians earn the same as Americans or Europeans. Most not only earn significantly less on average, they can do less with it.

I won’t get into the details here; read this ILO report if you want to know more.

So, just as students get discounted movie tickets and pensioners get discounted bus fares back home, lower earning “tourists” get discounted attractions.

The point here being: at least some dual-priced things are discounted for the locals, rather than hiked for the foreigners. It’s simple market economics.

Nevertheless, every week you can find some purple-faced tourist sucking up a US$15 cocktail in a US$200-a-night hotel steaming with rage as he fulminates about the “extortionate” mark-up he just had to fork out at the temple -- probably a full US$2.

He’ll use the US$25-per-day hotel WiFi to Tweet his righteous anger around the world, while munching on a US$10 bag of peanuts from the irresistibly overpriced mini-bar.

Yes, I know, I heard it before you said it: “It’s not the money, it’s the principle,” as blogger Chris Wootton, if you have the strength to wade through his 4 million-word essay on the subject, argues.

The principle presumably is that everyone should be treated the same, or, specifically, foreigners should be treated like locals.

Well, if you’ve learned the language, adopted the culture and pay the taxes, maybe you have a point. Flash your resident’s permit or work visa and you’ll get the “local’s price,” too.

But if you’re a tourist, you probably don’t.

The tax that’s overdue 

white taxSure, it costs her double. But is US$1.50 really a "rip-off"? Many museums, parks and zoos (with significant maintenance costs) are at least part-funded by local taxpayers, so what’s wrong with a one-off “tax” for tourists who don’t usually contribute?

Even if you’re not a five-star traveler, even if you’re a ‘round-the-world backpacker who’s abandoned underwear and decided shampoo is for fascists, do you really want to derail your good humor over a few bucks?

I used to live in New Delhi, where for the last decade every single taxi and rickshaw meter has been “broken.”

The city is the world’s meter graveyard, where rickshaw drivers transport the dead gauges from distraught tourist to distraught tourist, who take turns to wail like the bereaved over this inconceivable fare-computing tragedy.

Each transaction ends the same way: a sweaty, flustered traveler slumps into the rickshaw after 10 minutes, concluding, finally, that this guy is a schmuck but Jesus if he really wants the extra 30 cents fine, he can have it.

Better, surely, to just skip the first 10 minutes.

I learned to consider the extra charges not just a white man tax, but a stress-avoidance tax, too. Do not fight India -- you will not win.

Tourists have it good, too

If you're genuinely aggrieved by that extra US$0.90 you had to pay to take a camera into the mosque, make your next trip to Seoul or Singapore.

In Korea massive discounts are available exclusively to foreigners (not locals) at shops, parks, shows, restaurants and hotels.

Singapore allows foreigners free access to its Marina Bay Sands entertainment district, while locals have to pay.

Here the local/foreigner balance sheet will not only equalize, it will swing substantially in your favor.

The anti-dual-pricing arguments are frustrating because they propagate the idea that there’s something to fear whenever you go abroad, that paranoia and suspicion are legitimate emotions for travelers.

The case of the “racist Ferris wheel” in Bangkok turned a faintly ludicrous corner when some invoked the Thai constitution; so the document designed to harmonize law and justice across the country is being used to get a US$1.50 discount on a fairground ride.

Will the next target be discounts for kids, under the guise of “ageism”?

If you’re a gweilo, gaura, farang, baijo or gringo, the occasional US$2 overcharge is the price you pay for the freedom of entering a new culture -- the financial freedom as much as any other.

Accept it, and the whole ride will be a lot more enjoyable.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Durston

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As senior producer for CNN Travel, James commissions stories, writes for, edits and manages the homepage of the site. 

Follow his Twitterthing here: @jedurston

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