A tourist walks past a street vendor in Bangkok, Thailand. Pic: AP.

A tourist walks past a street vendor in Bangkok, Thailand. Pic: AP.

Government must review two-tiered pricing policy, writes James Austin Farrell

It is, arguably, taken for granted by most Western visitors, and even expatriates in Thailand, that they will be overcharged at various points of their trip or stay. Thailand has this reputation, and this is why you might see some foreigners arguing over 10 baht (30 cents) for a tuk-tuk journey, or shamefully bargaining at times on fixed-price goods such as eggs. The seasoned tourist fears he’s being made a fool of, while the expat may feel he is already contributing enough to the Thai economy and shouldn’t be taken advantage of. Foreigners are mostly all well aware of the skullduggery that sometimes exists in Thai pricing strategies. Some people accept it, others resent it. It exists, arguably, because when Westerners started visiting Thailand in droves they were seen as rich, and perhaps because of that were deemed eligible for a little extra taxation.

A story this week brought the issue of dual pricing up again after an American-born, Thailand raised (without citizenship) man was charged 200 baht to visit the Emerald Pool in Krabi, while his Thai friends were charged 20 baht. The Bangkok Post followed up with an opinion piece stating that two-tiered pricing is bad for the image of the country, which is probably true, if not now a platitude we hear too frequently.

We often hear about the ‘image of the country’, relating to high profile criminal cases (the Koh Tao murders for instance); when husbands get cheated out of their life’s savings (the BBC’s Jonathan Head recently covered this topic), or when nasty videos go viral such as the latest beat-down of foreigners in Phuket. Thailand’s image, we are told numerous times, has taken another beating itself. A beating shared and Liked thousands and thousands of times. Bad for the image of Thailand seems like a lame apology, a kind of insincere schoolboy ‘sorry’ by the government, the press, and countless Thai apologizers using social media.

SEE ALSO: Veteran foreign journalists to leave Thailand following threats

Perhaps it’s time, given how Thailand’s image is now viral, that some of these outdated modes of the darker side of hospitality are rigorously scrutinized – by the government, the press, the users of social media. As parents often tell their kids after a wrongdoing, “Well, ‘sorry’ is too late now, isn’t it?” How many investigative stories have we seen in the Thai press about island mafias or a rather delinquent police force? What about corrupt lawyers embedded in schemes to take a foreign man’s life’s savings? British journalist Andrew Drummond investigated such things, and his life, as well as his children’s lives, was threatened. Drummond was forced to leave Thailand after years of investigations, and his website has been blocked by the government.

Thailand Suvarnabhumi Airport

Passengers at Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. Pic: AP

A fair tax or discrimination?

National Parks in Thailand almost always charge foreigners (each park has its own method) more than Thais for an entrance fee, as do many tourist attractions including the grander temples in Bangkok, or places such as Chiang Mai zoo. The prices are often written in Thai numerical script for Thai visitors, and also English for those who can’t read Thai script. This has been criticized as being devious. A counter assumption would be hard to defend.

In a story I wrote for Citylife magazine on this topic some years ago I interviewed a director (she did not want us to publish her name) working for the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department. She explained that the high entrance fee for foreigners related to the conservation of the park. “We have to limit the amount of people visiting the park,” she said. She also said that at that time there were 1.5 million foreign tourists visiting the national parks each year for every 15 million Thais. Conservation seems like a fairly sound reason to charge extra. But it does mean that foreigners are paying, equally, in total, for a park that is being degraded by many more Thai footsteps. Foreigners also pay VAT.

Another argument as to why foreigners should pay more is that they don’t pay income tax. Most working expats do, but if they can produce a work permit, or even explain in Thai that they live and work here (not the case for the man in Krabi), they usually pay what Thais pay. This is not the case sometimes with taxis, dual-language menus, condo rental costs, an hour being massaged, or even a few minutes looking at a caged animal.

SEE ALSO: The kids will drink: Why Thailand booze ban could do more harm than good

Overcharging foreigners is not an anomaly; it’s widely accepted that adding some extra for foreigners is okay – more so the Caucasians as they are ostensibly the richest sort of visitor. Not paying income tax is one thing, but there’s also likely some amount of discrimination, envy, survival instinct, as well as a nationally propagated myth that foreigners are all wealthy, involved in the matter. If the government and tourist venues overcharge, and the Thai public certainly knows this, that myth is secured. It emboldens the public to do the same.

Thais earning low wages (up to 150,000 baht a year) don’t pay any income tax, and they pay the same as a Thai billionaire would to visit a national park. We would hope the Thai on meager wages pays a small price to see his country’s most spectacular man-made and natural attractions, and that a Thai billionaire, after paying so much in income tax, also gets a fair deal. Whether it should be exactly the same price is a question that is complex. Should even the big spending foreigners from abroad pay the same as a year-out student, given the amount of money one is spending in Thailand? To set prices using taxonomics, as is it putatively presently done, makes fairness a very confusing matter.

Khao Yai National Park. Pic: AP.

Khao Yai National Park. Foreigners often pay 10 times more than locals for entry to national parks. Pic: AP.

Consumer protection

When writing the story for Citylife a Chiang Mai lawyer, who also wished to remain anonymous, told me, “It’s illegal according to Thai law; there is an act to protect the consumer that states that prices have to be fair,” adding, “Where there are fixed prices it must be fair and equal for all consumers.”

The Consumer Protection Act (1979) of Thailand, section 4 states, ‘The consumer has the following rights of protection: the right to a fair contract.’

The lawyer said that it depends how ‘fair’ is interpreted. Section 10 of the act states, ‘The Board shall have the following powers and duties: to issue or publicise information concerning goods or services which may cause damage to or be prejudicial to the rights of the consumers.’

Dual pricing might be seen as prejudicial, and as the Bangkok Post stated, it’s causing damage to Thailand’s reputation. The matter is also a hot potato. While writing the same story The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), Chiang Mai, as well as the Chiang Mai mayor at the time, declined an interview, saying this was a “sensitive topic”.

The now defunct 2007 constitution section 30 includes laws concerning the discrimination of race, origin, personal status, economic or social standing, ect. Section 84 (Economic Policy) encourages, “entrepreneurs to use merit, ethics and corporate governance principle in carrying out of their businesses.” It also encourages, “consumer protection”. The 2014 interim constitution is vague on the matter of consumer protection.

SEE ALSO: Thailand’s uneasy reliance on Chinese tourists just keeps getting bigger

Besides the fact that expatriate employees rarely get to keep hold of their work permits, or that a face from many parts of Asia could stand near the back as a Thai friend pays for the group, the question is, is dual-pricing discriminatory, and also if it happens at major tourist attractions does that send a message to the man in the street, or even the owners of establishments selling something to foreigners? Is discrimination of foreigners embedded in the zeitgeist?

Perhaps all national parks should be free, or have a set price, and the government should allocate a budget from income tax or VAT for those parks. A price not based on nationality, or ethnicity, or yearly earnings; a standard that doesn’t discriminate at all. The country, inclusive of the tourism economy, should have already paid for a fair price. This includes camping at Thailand’s highest mountain Doi Inthanon, or laughing at penguins tripping over themselves in a zoo (in an interview with Chiang Mai Zoo director, Tanaphat Phongphamorn, told Citylife, “We have to follow the rules of the country.”)

The issue that’s rarely invoked is the fact that Westerners are sometimes still seen as a viable means of exploitation, a racket, which is now becoming antiquated. It’s hard to blame the taxi driver for taking a chance, but it’s easy to criticize government run operations for doing the same. Some amount of guilt surely lies in the dual language pricing.

Image should be discussed, but what created the image should be the main topic of discussion; which is arguably greed and/or discrimination, as well as impoverished people taking what they think they rightly deserve. If the government reviews its two-tiered pricing strategy according to fairness, you might see a shift in how foreigners are treated generally by the hoi polloi: Viewed not as an exploitable source of money, but an asset to the country… in economic terms anyway.

SEE ALSO: Bangkok shakedown: Tourists report increased harassment by police