Friday, October 27, 2006

Tourists, locals and Sri Lankan Mothers

I was having a healthy argument with my Mum the other day about the positives and negatives of the Sri Lankan system of charging differing rates to tourists and locals.

Now, you know what these Sri Lankan Mothers are like. In fact the sentence:

"I was having a healthy argument with my Mum the other day"

is full to the brim with innaccuracies, bulging with oxymorons and would probably get me thrown out of many an institution. Or put in one.

First there's the issue of saying "a healthy" instead of "an healthy". I believe that the correct thing is the latter, but the average man in the street, whether it's Duplication Road (one way or two way!) or Piccadilly, won't say that in everyday conversation. The odd very well spoken, prim and proper Englishman will make it a habit to say "an hotel", dropping the aitch. Of course they only exist in PG Wodehouse books and American films. The rest of us talk about a hotel, with a hard aitch.

Then there's the major oxymoron "a healthy argument with my Mum".

You're reading this therefore you may well be Sri Lankan. You probably have had experience of these Sri Lankan Mothers. You may have had or still have one, hell you may even be one (hello T and N). You may be someone who actually knows my Mother. But, whatever your background, there is a very high chance you'll be nodding in agreement, smiling knowingly and feeling rather gulty about it.

These Sri Lankan Mothers are unique. They're like a Matriarch really, only scarier and more Motherly.

And it is against the law to have a healthy argument with your own one.

So, the other day it was more of a chat. Well a lecture I suppose. With me as the audience. You're never too old or too wise for your own Mother to give you some advice on how to wear your trousers, how to breathe, how to walk or some other pearl of wisdom.

But, Mothers aside, we were discussing the tourist and local system of pricing that most tourist places have in SL. My opinion is that it's a good thing, in principle.

As long as the cost of living is Sri Lanka is so much lower than in the Western world then I think it can work and achieve all its objectives. Most tourists are happy to pay a more "Western" type of price for the joys of climbing Sigiriya or exploring the caves of Dambulla. The price has to be finely judged as many aren't happy to pay a rate that is, for example, the same as the admission price to Madame Tussauds, even though Madame Tussauds is crap.

On reflection I would actually pay the same price to climb Sigiriya as I would to enter M Tussauds, but my point is that most western tourists in Sri Lanka do expect to pay less for things than they / we do at home. After all, the low cost of living in Sri Lanka could probably be classed as an attraction in itself.

So, in principle, I'm perfectly happy to pay a bit more to see certain things and stay in certain places than I would have to if I were a local. The Sri Lankan economy gains more revenue, many of the poorer local people are able to see sights and do things that they would never be able to if they had to pay higher prices and all are happy.

There are occasions when I get really pissed off with the tourist rates though. There are times when I have stayed in some hotels and had to pay the full all up tourist rates. Why? Because I don't hold a Sri Lankan passport and don't speak Sinhala. Well I ask you, they're just details. My family and heritage is Sri Lankan through and through, I go there at least once a year and I honestly feel that my cumulative contribution to the Sri Lankan economy is far greater than that of the average "package tour" tourist. Just ask the fellow with the long hair and baldness at House Of Fashion if you don't belive me. As I have got to know more people and made more contacts over the years it's now quite rare that I will stay somewhere and have to pay rate card, but it can still happen and still be annoying. I guess it's a pride thing, not wanting to be classed as a normal Sudda but also knowing that I'll never be a proper local.

So to remedy the situation (for me at least) the GOSL needs to introduce some kind of loyalty card. I need to be able to accumulate points for trips to Sri Lanka, knowledge of people, places and presence of family. I can accept that a lack of Sinhala should be a negative in my Sri Lankanness rating, but it shouldn't wholly negate everything else.

I wear a sarong every night, that must be a big point scorer. I can nod my head the Sri Lankan way to say yes, I can play a passable baila on the drumkit. All these things must count for somethng surely.

Indi, can't you organise some scheme for people who have blogs listed on kottu too. That should be a big points earner.

So different rates for tourists and locals is fine by me. As long as I'm a local, not a tourist.

For the record my Mum thinks that it's a ridiculous system and everyone should pay the same.

She knows.


Anonymous said...

Any form of discrimination whether it be based on racism or nationality/citizenship is immoral, not withstanding self serving rationalizations. You think it's okay to discriminate so long as you are spared! Your mom has 100 times more brain cells than you!

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Anon - thanks for that. It is a view that I agree with, I'm just not sure whether I would class the different prices as discrimination. It all depends on whether one sees it as unfair or not. You're probably correct about my Mum though!

Indyana said...

It's a pain, and being Indian(and brown) we do try to pass off as locals,so that we don't have to pay the tourist rate, but that's cheap , I know...!But, hubby thinks otherwise with a large brood and all...cluck, cluck!

Anonymous said...

How could it possibly be fair for hotels and shops to charge discriminatory prices? The fact that people in advanced western countries on average earn more cannot possibly be the reason because Sri Lankans who earn a lot of money are charged exactly the same rate as Sri Lankans who earn very little. If the idea that it is okay for hotels to discriminate in pricing based on the customers income is valid, then it should be really based on the customers income, not citizenship.
And of course discriminatory pricing based on citizenship often degenerates into discriminatory pricing based on skin color, as Indyana's comments make clear.

And Rhythmic, if you really think it is fair, what are you complaining about?
Pride? Not wanting to be classed as a white person?
My question is, why should white persons be classed differently for this to be an issue at all?

Also, the other side of this coin is that some hotels in Sri Lanka actually discriminate against Sri Lankans and prefer to have western tourists as customers. There are some clubs in Colombo that have "foreigners only" signs in front of them. Both of these forms of discrimination are equally wrong and they are related. When it's thought ok to charge higher from foreign nationals, is it surprising?

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Anon - I'll try to give my point of view to each of your main points:

It's not practical to charge based on each customer's income, but it is feasible to charge based on "local" or "tourist" status. The Sri Lankans who make lots of money do throw my logic into total disarray but I think "local" rates mean that many of the less wealthy locals can do things and go to places that they simply would not be able to afford otherwise. I think that is a good thing.

I'm not really complaining, it was just meant to be a slightly humorous post, perhaps I didn't succeed in conveying my thoughts very well. My comment about pride was not about being classed as a white person but about being classed as a "package tourist". I don't want that!

I agree with your views on discrimination, I abhor it too. It is a grey area because I do believe that discrimination is defined as "unfair treatment of a race or group" or something similar. To me the key word is "unfair" as what each person thinks of as unfair will undoubtedly vary. I don't think it unfair to charge local and tourist rates but you do. That's fine by me and I respect your opinion on it.

As a side note I remember reading a post some time ago by someone who told of how they got into a casino by pretending to be Indian. Ironic really!

Thanks a lot for your thooughfully presented opinions.


N said...

By the anon's reasoning then all foreign students in the UK should be charged the same as the UK/EU students, instead we got charged literally 10 times as much...

I think the different pricing is blatantly bloody good...for one thing we should stop trying to attract the cheapo tourists who dont want to spend the equivalent of a night out in the West on our sites, we should really be attracting the higher end tourists both from the West and the East.

The way it is now with the cheapos they cause more trouble than the're worth in the long term.

Anonymous said...


Trying to differentiate between foreign citizens who are package tourists and foreign citizens who are not package tourists would be as impractical as trying to differentiate between Sri Lankan citizens who have a high income and Sri Lankan citizens who have a low income. The only way this can me done is to make exceptions in the case of foreign citizens who have residence visas, and in some places this is already done or at least supposed to be done. But in the case of anyone who comes in on a tourist visa, making exceptions for those who come often would not be practical.. It would involve a lot of bureaucracy and stuff and government officers keeping track of how often someone comes and goes, how much they spend in Sri Lanka, how often they update their blog listed in Kottu etc.

In any case, why should such a differentiation be made? If the argument in favour of differential pricing is based on the idea that it makes it possible to low income Sri Lankans to travel to go to places where they would otherwise be unable to go, surely that's not applicable to you for example!
I mean you can afford to pay tourist rates unlike Sri Lankans who have lower incomes, so why should you be charged the same rate as them?

I'd like to ask you a question. If a white looking person walks into a shop and wants to buy a coke or a fanta or a lunch packet, do you think it's right if the shop owner asks for a price that is twice the price he would charge from someone who looks brown?
If it is, then how is that different from the kind of racial discrimination that has been made illegal in western countries?

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Anon - I am not seriously suggesting that it is practical to differentiate between package tourists and non package ones, just pointing out, clearly unsuccessfully, that I get irked at the thought of people thinking of me as a package tourist. I agree with N in that the package guys can cause more trouble than they're worth in the long term.

Surely your statement that "you can
afford to pay tourist rates unlike Sri Lankans who have lower incomes, so why should you be charged the same rate as them?" negates many of your points made so far. Aren't you arguing that this "discrimination" ,if I can afford it, is a good thing.

I have no definitive answer to your question but I must make the following point. When I am in Sri Lanka I usually travel in tri shaws. Even though I am dark skinned and Sri Lankan in origin my appearance is usually considered "foreign". This is totally reinforced when my lack of Sinhala is discovered. And do you think that the average tri shaw driver charges me local rates? No way.

It used to really bug me a lot but now I try to haggle and invariably settle on a price that I know to be somewhere in between the full "tourist" rate and the local rate. There doesn't seem to be any benefit in haggling over 50p, which wouldn't really benefit me.

This principle is the same in many shops that don't charge fixed prices, particulalry if I am with my wife, who is as white as, well, a white person.

Thanks again, I am enjoying our debate!

Anonymous said...

When I said "you can afford to pay tourist rates unlike Sri Lankans who have lower incomes, so why should you be charged the same rate as them?". I wasn't stating my own view. I was just pointing out the implication of your justification of discriminatory pricing. And I preceded and qualified that with "If the argument in favour of differential pricing is based on.....". The key word is "If"!
What I meant was, you cannot on the one hand justify discriminatory pricing by pointing out that Sri Lankans who may not be able to afford certain things should be charged less, and then go on to also say that you also should be among those who are charged less. I was just trying to point out a contradiction in your argument. That's all.
I think I should have been clearer about what I meant, so I'll restate it in better language that accurately conveys my intention. What I meant was "given that your justification for discriminatory pricing is based on the argument that it makes it possible for Sri Lankans to go places they would otherwise not be able to afford to go to, it would be contradictory for you to say that you should also be charged less because you can afford to pay the usual tourist rates."
Ofcourse, all this was based on my mistaken understanding that you were serious when you wrote "So different rates for tourists and locals is fine by me. As long as I'm a local, not a tourist." Since you were not serious in that regard, the contradiction dissapears.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Anon - fair enough. The biggest problem with this medium is that I can't always get my true feelings across. And I hate using those "smiley" things although they sometimes help.

Do you really think that, if prices were equal all round, the less well off locals would suffer in not being able to see the attractions and such?

And, do we know each other?

Anonymous said...


With regard to what you said about my question, If what you tried to convey is that white looking people are not the only ones who would get charged a higher amount at shops etc. then I can agree with you. But that still doesn't answer my question.

So I'll ask it again -
If a white looking person walks into a shop and wants to buy a coke or a fanta or a lunch packet, do you think it's right if the shop owner asks for a price that is twice the price he would charge from someone who looks brown?
If it is, then how is that different from the kind of racial discrimination that has been made illegal in western countries?
It's a simple question, so why can't you give a straight answer?
My own answer to my own question is - that's absolutely wrong. As wrong as similar instances of racial discrimination in western countries.

Anonymous said...


Actually I think with regard to the historical sites, the right approach would be for everyone including tourists to be charged some rate that is close to the rate that local people are charged right now. If the rates for locals are raised to even a fraction of the current tourist rates, then yes, that would definitely make it difficult for many local people to go to them. So I would definitely oppose any change in the status quo if it meant local people having to pay significantly higher ticket prices! This is because for many poorer people, visiting these kinds of historical sites are all they have to look forward to. Also many of these places have great significance in terms of national identity and religious faith, so placing barriers upon Sri Lankans who wish to go to those places would be a very bad thing.

But I do not believe that the amounts currently charged from tourists are even necessary for the preservation of the historical sites. In fact many cultural and religious places are maintained purely through donations of the people without charging any entry fee from those who visit them. The current policy of milking tourists who visit historical places is at worst discrimination and at best “a penny wise, a pound foolish”. It makes people feel discriminated and unwelcome, and no that's not because they are cheap and don't want to spend a measly 20 dollars to visit a historical site or 200 dollars to visit 10 historical sites, most people spend much more than that on their plane tickets and accommodation and transport, even the budget tourists. It's because people in general prefer to be treated like everyone else and nobody likes being charged more for something when the guy standing next to them is charged much less. People who feel unwelcome are less likely to return or recommend to their friends that they also spend a holiday here.

In the case of discriminatory pricing in tourist establishments like hotels, restaurants, shops etc. there is no way whatsoever to defend that. Nope I do not think that non discrimination in these establishments would have much impact in terms of people being able to visit historical sites. I doubt if most poorer people who visit historical sites stay in places generally frequented by tourists. Maybe it might have some impact on people who want to enjoy the comforts of hotel life, but those people can hardly be described as “poor” and in any case, that can never justify discrimination.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Anon - I wasn't trying to avoid giving a straight answer to your question, I just don't have one.

On one hand I fully agree with you that instances of racial discrimination are wrong.

On the other hand I think that, if none of the parties involved are offended, as in my tri shaw situation, then it's not actually discrimination, as in people being refused service or admission purely because of colour or race. That is totally offensive and I think we are agreed on that.

So, do we know each other? I have a feeling.

Sorry for the short reply, I had typed in a more lengthy one but it got deleted when I went to publish it. Have to dash to drop child dressed as a witch to a party.

Hope to continue later.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

I meant child dressed as a witch, not me.

Anonymous said...

With regard to N's comments -

1) I am discussing here what is right and what is wrong, not what is being done in the UK and what isn't being done in the UK.
2) His comment against budget tourists is just a cheap shot comment because he hasn't specified what the “trouble” that budget tourists cause for them to be “more trouble than they are worth in the long term.”
3) He is changing the subject by trying to make it seem as though it's the amount of the entry fee that is at issue rather than the principle of non discrimination.
4) Discrimination in hotels and other tourist establishments will make many people feel unwelcome and will dissuade many self respecting people whether they are budget tourists or high spenders.

Anonymous said...


Well, I'm afraid we don't know each other. Maybe I am similar in character to someone you do know!
Yup, it might be good to use smileys once in a while :-) Even I didn't like using them in the beginning but one gets used to them. In any case I think some misunderstandings are inevitable in this communication medium. It just doesn't compare with talking to someone face to face or even over the phone. The main thing is to be patient enough to iron them out when misunderstandings do happen.
I'd also like to say sorry for the fact that I may have seemed less than friendly when discussing this issue. :-)
Just in case there is any doubt, I did not feel any personal animosity.

Anonymous said...


Okay, my understanding is that you agree it's discrimination if the person being over charged feels offended.
I mean you said “On the other hand I think that, if none of the parties involved are offended, as in my tri shaw situation, then it's not actually discrimination”.
You might not be offended by that, but there are definitely individuals who would be offended. So do you agree that in such cases when the purchaser/buyer is offended for being asked a higher price simply for having a different physical appearance that it does constitute discrimination?

Also, the particular form of discrimination is not an excuse. The essence of discrimination is treating people differently based on race/appearance or some similar factor. The fact that it takes the form of asking for higher prices rather than outright denial of service doesn't make discrimination any less obnoxious.

mufee said...

Just giving my 2 cents worth..
Whats wrong with charging them higher rates for tourist attractions? I doubt it boils down to much in their currency.. Even if it was much, well we could do with the extra moola..
And i stopped reading the comments at the bath parcel pit ( got lazy), I doubt anyone does that..! Just the tourist attractions and hotels . and come on.. they are'nt really exhorbitant amounts according to a traveller!!

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Anon - Yes. I fully agree that cases when a party is offended by being asked to pay a higher price because of physical appearance do constitute discrimination.

I think that asking for higher prices can be less obnoxious than other forms of discrimination, that all comes down to the question of whether someone is offended.

Thanks for your apology. I did think at first that there was some personal animosity but, as our discussion developed, I realised that you are someone who feels strongly about this. Feel free to send me your email address. I'd like to talk more.

the1truecoolguy said...

This is a very interesting debate! Here's my 2 cents:

When I was in SL (for the first time ever last year), I was not there as a tourist. I had gotten a resident visa because I was going to be doing Tsunami relief work for 6 months. I often got the local rate by showing the visa.

The thing I HATED...was when locals would often say: "Oh, well, you're a rich foreigner, so it's OK." in any situation. No, I wasn't a "rich foreigner". I was a student who had essentially spent his life savings to come over and help out. I suppose I was more annoyed by the lack of student rates when I had to pay full/tourist price at certain places.

I haven't really come to a conclusion about this and both you and Anon have brought up good points. I guess what would help me make a decision is: Is this common practice in other [poor] countries? I know people try to rip off tourists in any country, but I mean, do other countries have official "tourist" rates that are far higher than a "local" rate? I would consider people from the UK "rich" because their currency is worth 2x as much as ours. However, we don't have tourist rates here (in Canada)...

PS: For the record, I love smileys! :D You've probably noticed that on my blog. ESP. in a debate I think it helps show the tone of voice. I've had more than my fair share of online misunderstandings, so I use my smileys liberally!! ;)

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Ian - Thanks for that input. I don't know if any other countries have the same practice of charging tourist and local rates, I've certainly never seen it, but I don't have any experience of travel in other Asian countries (apart from Singapore). My parents were telling me the other day that prices are uniform in Thailand too.

Anonymous said...

Well yes, this practice is very common in poorer countries. Just do a google search!

I found this to be interesting because it encapsulates what the whole thing is all about. In response to an American who complains about about being discriminated against in Ukrain, someone writes -
“I agree, but you obviously haven't been to countries like Turkey, China and probably anything in between..... it's common practice all around the world. And unfortunately we can not stop it. I have [not] experienced that only in places where the locals aren't used to or aren't expecting westerners, they are so baffled that they don't think of ripping you off.”

This is also very interesting -
“I agree completely with you, Atanu. This is so embarassing. I went to Agra with somebody with a German passport and at all the places, they charged me 10 times less than what they charged her. This is clear discrimination – something that never happened with me in the US. Charging more for some extra service provided is fine but charging different amounts just because of a different nationality is ridiculous (and embarassing). “

And this-
“Besides, how do they enforce this sort of blatant discrimination? Technically I am a foreigner because I don’t have an Indian passport anymore. So unless they ask people to produce passports, the only way for them to suspect that one is a foreigner is by the color of their skin. Basically it boils down to this: if you don’t look Indian, you are required to pony up 20 times what an Indian-looking person would pay to have the same privilege.
It is morally repugnant to discriminate against people, even if the discrimination is against those who are presumed rich. Not just that, it is commercially short-sighted because people notice this sort of blatant double-standards and it affects the overall tourist traffic into the country.”
[Keep in mind that in India unlike in Sri Lanka there is no national identity card as yet.]

Also, this blog post seems to be doing well for google searches “lanka tourist rate” (no 1) and “tourist discriminatory pricing” (no 3)!

Anonymous said...


I think I've said everything I could say on this and I doubt there is anything for me to add, so I'll put an end to my series of rants. :-)

You keep thanking me for the discussion/argument but that's really not necessary. I just wrote a few comments that's all. That's nothing compared to all the many interesting things you've written in your blog.
I'm really not sure whether “enjoy” is the right word for how I felt talking, or rather writing about these things. The topic is too unpleasant for that. But still I'm glad we discussed it. I've never really discussed this issue earlier, so actually having some sort of discussion over it is...I'm not quite sure what the word would be, so I'll just say that having a discussion over it was a good thing!

The reason I joined in the discussion is because from your blog posts you came across as being a very sensible person, and for that reason your conclusion that it is okay to charge higher rates from tourists appeared to me to be paradoxical. I was wondering how such an obviously sensible and thoughtful person could come to such a conclusion. If it weren't for that I don't think I would have bothered commenting.

There was one more thing in this post that I also found to be interesting. Your frustration at being taken for a tourist. That's probably entitled to an entire discussion by itself. So far I didn't say anything about it, not because I didn't think it worth being discussed. It's because I felt discussing it would distract from the the discrimination issue, which was what drew me in. Also I found another related post in which you say that you consider yourself to be both British and Sri Lankan, though not English to be very interesting. And of course your adventure buying a suitcase in petah!

And thanks for the discussion and more than that, thanks for maintaining such a great blog, for me to read. :-)


Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Anon - Me too, I don't think there's much more I can say on the subject. It has been a great thing to have this online discussion and I guess I was thanking you for the time and effort you have clearly put into your comments.

I hope I can buy you a beer sometime, if you ever chosse to tell me who you are!

One final thank you for all the nice things you have said about my blog. It started as something just to relieve the boredom and, when people make comments like you have, well, it just feels good.


Anonymous said...

There is one final thing I should say, because it just occurred to me. There is one comment by Mufee that I didn't get earlier because I didn't realize there was a switch to sinhala involved.
He said "And I stopped reading the comments at the bath parcel pit ( got lazy), I doubt anyone does that..!" [In sinhala "bath" means lunch]
Well Mufees doubts are understandable because it is very rare. In almost all places where they sell lunch they have one single standard price. But it was not something I imagined. A gentleman I know who is a long time resident of Sri Lanka told me about such an incident that happened to him. It was the first time that happened to him when buying a lunch packet even though he had lived in Sri Lanka for many years. He was very upset about it. Though a foreigner, he was neither rich nor a tourist. I took that as an example because it stayed with me due to my own surprise that it can happen even when purchasing a lunch packet.
In any case the lunch packet was just an example. If someone isn't willing to believe that then that's fine because just about any other example where it is well known that foreigners are charged more will do just as well. [Such as three wheel rides]
I know I had said my rants are over, but leaving this issue as it is would have given the impression that I am avoiding what mufee said.
So this is *really* my last comment, bye! :-)

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Hey Anon - I think the specifics about the bath packet case are not that important. From what I have seen most of these kades have the prices for different lunch packets marked up on a board or something anyway. It can be very frustrating to be in a situation when I am haggling over an amount that I know is vastly higher than anything a local would pay and those are the most frequent occasions when I feel insulted to be mistaken for a tourist.

Please comment - or I'll miss you!

Anonymous said...

I agree that the specifics of the case are not important. And I did say “almost all places where they sell lunch they have one single standard price.” Since Mufee doubts whether that ever happens, I just wanted to point out that my example was taken from a real incident.

I can understand your frustration. But at least you live and work in London and come to Sri Lanka on holidays.
Imagine a foreigner who is not a tourist and lives in Sri Lanka, don't you think such a person's frustration could be much greater?

In any case, I don't think even tourists should have to haggle over inflated prices. I mean they are people too, and should be treated as such. Not as ATM machines.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Anon - you may have inadvertently hit a nail on a head! The fact I live and work in London means that it is only frustration, I would be pretty damn annoyed if I lived in SL, was a foreigner and it still happened to me. My initial post was getting at the habit of charging higher rates in the more "official" establishments like the bigger hotels, cultural attratctions etc. I thought that those kind of places would normally chaarge local rates to a foreigner with a working visa or an expat. I suppose the "rip off" merchants, who try to charge more when they see the skin colour or hear the accent or just realise they have got a "sudda", will exist in any country. There are many cabbies / ice cream men etc who will charge more to a foreigner than they will to a Londoner. It's not right but I think it does happen all over the world.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Anon - pls get in touch

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Aah go on Anon! Say hello at least!

Anonymous said...

Hello! :-) lol
Have a nice time in the island of Man!

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Hey A, can I call you that?

Thanks ;-) (;-);;(

I'll get the hang of these!!

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Hey Anon! - Come back, I miss you

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