If there’s one thing in Thailand that regularly has expats up in arms, it’s dual pricing.
Of course, just as with other such controversial topics, there are just about as many who defend the practice as those who oppose it.
Here’s why I disagree with the practice as it stands.
The confusing situation at national parks
Dual pricing is widespread in Thailand, perhaps most noticeably at state-run national parks.
Popular parks such as Kanchanaburi’s Erawan, famous for its seven-tier waterfalls, charge foreign tourists as much as ฿500 in admission, while Thais get in for ฿100.
In the past, many expats (me included) reported being able to obtain the lower local rate on production of any number of documents from a confusing, inconsistent and continually changing showreel; everything from work permits to driving licences, taxpayer identification cards to bank cards.
More bizarre examples included an impromptu demonstration of the ability to speak Thai (because of course that’s definitive proof that you contribute to the tax system in the way Thais are deemed to, even though the vast majority don’t), to showing off Thai family members to gate staff.
(On the flip side, there are isolated examples of park officials apparently suggesting that Thais travelling with their foreign partners should also pay the tourist rate, precisely because they’re in a relationship with a foreigner.)
In any case, that practice of discretion at national park gates seems to be coming to an end.
Staff at numerous national parks – most notably Khao Yai, but apparently also Erawan – have been instructed that all non-Thais must pay the tourist rate, regardless of residential or taxpayer status. And, at the end of 2014, The Phuket News quoted the head of the Department of National Parks’ Tourism Promotion Office as confirming that foreigners “aren’t entitled to the same privileges as Thais”, no matter how long they have been living here.
But she added that “if you are lucky, you might benefit from the flexibility [exercised by some park officers].”
That just about sums up the clarity of the situation that expats continue to face when it comes to dual pricing at national parks.
Yet, while still believed by many to be illegal on the basis of anti-discrimination laws, dual pricing at taxpayer-funded attractions is quite different – at least if you ask me – to the same thing happening at privately run attractions which have no link to the tax system, and therefore no business deciding how much to charge me on the basis of whether or not I live and/or pay taxes here.
The ferris wheel that claimed it was only offering a ‘discount’ to Thais
Memorable examples of dual pricing at private attractions include the ferris wheel at Bangkok outdoor shopping mall Asiatique the Riverfront, which quietly charged foreigners ฿250 and Thais ฿200 – and proceeded to ignite a social media fireball by blocking users, like popular travel blogger Richard Barrow, who questioned the policy on its Facebook page.
The European operator later caved – claiming rather disingenuously that the intention was to offer a discount to Thais for allowing the company to run the attraction in Thailand, rather than to overcharge foreigners.
Yet unconfirmed reports later suggested the wheel had reverted to its old dual pricing ways.
The honey that jumped in price by 200% in western script
More recently, Barrow also helped expose a Chiang Mai health food shop displaying signs that appeared to suggest foreigners were being charged over 200% more for honey than Thais.
What both Thais and non-Thais found particularly infuriating and insulting about this case – and it’s something that occurs more often than you might think – is that the shop appeared to be trying to conceal its approach by printing the lower price in Thai numerals and only the higher price in western numerals, seemingly on the rather outdated belief that no non-Thai would be able to read Thai script.
After a protracted silence, the shop claimed – again, rather disingenuously according to many social media users – that it had in fact never charged Thais and foreigners different prices per se, and that the higher price was instead the one charged to those visiting the outlet as part of a tour group. In any case, the owner agreed to revert to displaying just the lower price.
An ideal pricing scenario
Everyone has their own stand on dual pricing. Some believe that it’s an acceptable practice, while others are against it in any form. Many point out that its very basis is grounded in the flawed, patronising belief that all Thais are poor and all non-Thais are rich.
Of course, this ignores the fact that plenty of Thais turn up to tourist attractions in their Mercedes to take advantage of their free or discounted entry.
It also conveniently ignores the fact that, for instance, a ฿50 discount on a ferris wheel – bringing the cost down to ฿200 baht – is unlikely to make it accessible to a minimum-wage Thai worker earning ฿300 a day.
I’m somewhere between the two.
While I would ideally love to see an end to dual pricing in totality, I am relatively happy to see tourists pay a premium at state-run attractions and, as a result, for those who already live in the country and pay taxes that support the upkeep of state-run sites, to pay less.
But that means not just Thais, but also non-Thai residents (or if you want to take it one step further, then only those actually living in Thailand – since those usually wealthy Thais who live abroad often contribute nothing more to Thailand’s tax coffers than a foreign tourist).
And there’s little doubt in my mind that privately run attractions should never be charging a different price based on nationality, residency or tax status, no matter how minute the mark-up.
There’s more to it than that, though.
In fact, it’s a common defence of dual pricing – used by Thais, expats and even foreign tourists – that throws up one of the biggest issues I have with the system as it stands. Each time a dual pricing situation is highlighted in the press, the same echo of cries emerges claiming that it’s no different to the ways in which – so these people claim – Thais are charged higher prices than ‘locals’ in other countries, including in Europe and the US.
In a sense it’s true, of course.
It’s common for university education, in particular, to be cheaper for nationals and residents of a country (if it’s not already free for them) than it is for those flying in to reap the benefits of world-renowned educational institutions.
That’s because nationals or residents (or their families) are deemed likely to have already contributed to that country’s tax system, which funds the education system in the first place.
Likewise, there are numerous tourist attractions around the world that offer discounted or free entry to locals – determined either as nationals and residents of that country, or often people living in the locality of the attraction itself.
But there’s a big difference between that and what happens in Thailand (and elsewhere).
Eligibility for local university tuition fees is almost always based on documentary evidence of nationality or residency. And if you try to get into, for instance, the Roman Baths in Bath, England, you’ll be asked for proof that you live in Bath.
Yet go to a national park in Thailand – or to many privately run attractions here – and you’ll likely be charged the higher rate simply on the basis of the colour of your skin.
Because the sad fact is that eligibility for ‘local’ prices at national parks and other attractions is all too often based on visual profiling. That’s despite the fact, of course, that there’s nothing to stop a black or white person being Thai (yes, naturalisation is a long-winded process, but it’s not impossible – and there are plenty of ‘half-Thai’ nationals who have Caucasian and other appearances).
The other effect of this, too, is that plenty of ethnically Asian tourists of non-Thai background slip through the net and are charged the ‘local rate’, because this flawed and prejudiced approach to profiling leads to the assumption that they’re Thai, based on what they look like.
Even the idea that the onus should be on foreign expats to show proof of residency – in order to qualify for lower entry fees – is an extension of this concept of visual profiling.
Again, there’s nothing to say that, just because the person appearing at the ticket booth is black or white, he or she is a foreign tourist or expat and not Thai. So why are they expected to produce proof of their residency, while no-one asks the person of Asian-appearance – who, as we’ve seen, might or might not actually be Thai – to produce their Thai national ID card as proof?
Obtaining free third-class railway tickets on local services at Bangkok’s Hualamphong station is one of the rare situations when Thais are regularly asked to produce proof of nationality before availing of a freebie or lower rate; in most similar cases, production of an ID card is not routinely requested or required.
That’s the rationale for the final caveat to the dual pricing scenario I outlined: if Thais and expats are going to be granted free or discounted entry to state-run attractions, it should be on the basis that everyone is expected to produce suitable proof of nationality or residence in order to gain that discount.
If someone claiming to be Thai is unable to produce their ID card or other evidence, then they should be charged the foreign tourist rate.
Likewise, of course, if I as an expat am unable to provide similar proof, I will happily be charged the foreign tourist rate on that occasion.
No-one is going to solve the frustration of dual pricing overnight.
But Thai authorities already admit that ‘foreign’ visitor numbers to national parks are in decline. And national park income from ‘foreigners’ is already dwarfed by that from Thais – so it’s not as if this dual pricing is what’s keeping the whole system afloat.
As Thailand searches for ways to keep its international tourists happy and returning for more – and, when it comes to expats, to keep the ‘good guys in, bad guys out’ – resolving the issues of dual pricing in both the public and private sectors would be one way to settle an age-old source of controversy.