Why pay more?

BANGKOK — Among Thailand’s expats and frequent visitors, this Thai practice ranks as one of the most widely reviled. Some call it “disgusting.” Others call it “tasteless.”

It isn’t child labor. It isn’t human trafficking.

It’s the extra charge foreigners must pay at many tourist sites.

Few topics provoke rawer reactions from Westerners in Thailand, who often drift toward this topic during pub talk and coffeehouse chatter.

Thailand’s largest English-language daily, The Bangkok Post, anchors a “double pricing” forum on its homepage for readers to vent. Between tips on skirting the foreigner fee, some defend the charge as a counterweight to income disparity. Others condemn it with bitter rhetoric.

“The double-pricing for Europeans is a thinly disguised slap in the face to the European/white colonial powers and a feeble attempt at payback,” wrote one Bangkok Post poster. Wrote another: “Double pricing is … humiliating and just a very tasteless way to gain more income over (sic) the back of tourists.”

Just what is “double pricing,” and why does it infuriate some Westerners to no end?

At many Thai tourist attractions, from private aquariums to government-run parks, visitors are confronted with two fee listings. One presents the cost in Thai numerals, seldom used outside formal settings but universally legible to Thais.

The other presents the “foreigner” price in English, with charges that are often 50 percent to 100 percent higher and sometimes triple the local charge. The difference often amounts to about $3 to $5 — though it can add $15 or more per person in extreme cases. Ticket vendors often determine non-Thais by race, singling out Caucasians or Indians for higher fees.

This is formally known as “two-tier pricing” by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, a state entity that absorbs much of the detractors’ blame. The entity, however, has “no control” over tourist sites that charge foreigners more, said Kaneungnit Chotikakul, the agency’s international public relations director.

Still, she said, the practice is rooted in the income gap between the average Thai and the average tourist. “For government attractions, the lower pricing for Thai citizens reflects the lower relative purchasing power (of) the large majority of Thais compared to international visitors,” she said.

The foreigner fee debate is often reduced to polarized arguments — essentially “tourist sites are racist” vs. “travelers who complain are entitled and stingy.” (Plenty of foreigners will argue the latter.)

The reality is more nuanced, said Stephen Cleary, a British writer, editor and translator who’s spent the last 14 years in Thailand.

“Never once have I paid the foreigner price,” said Cleary, who insists ticket sellers will usually offer the local price if foreigners can dish out a little Thai. “For places that refuse totally foreigners paying the Thai price, I’ve refused to go in.”

Cleary’s batting average is not perfect. He was once chased by a crowbar-wielding pick-up truck taxi driver, he said, after neglecting to pay the extra 5 Thai baht —14 cents — expected of foreigners.

But Cleary is sensitive to poorly funded national parks and Buddhist temples where Thai worshippers typically leave behind merit-making donations and foreigners don’t. Further, he said, many foreigners are oblivious to the racial sizing-up that urban Thais — who are often Chinese-descended and fair-skinned — encounter when vacationing in the countryside, he said.

“But many Chinese-Thais on holiday don’t make much of a fuss when they are overcharged,” he said. “Making a hey-ha about it would make them lose face.”

The anger is too often directed at the Thai government or Thai people, Cleary said, even though the double-charging guesthouses and other sites are sometimes owned by fellow foreigners.

Perhaps the most criticized attraction charging foreigner fees is the Australian-owned Siam Ocean World, a deluxe aquarium housed in the basement of Bangkok’s glam Siam Paragon mall. On one recent weekday, a female Thai greeter in glittery mermaid garb welcomed families in the lobby — as did her co-worker, tottering in a plush otter suit.

Overhead, one sign welcomed foreigners with an $88 family package. Nearby, the Thai-language sign offered the same package for half that price. (A clerk explained that non-Thais with work permits could enter with the local price.)

“People come to Thailand as it is a cheap holiday. They come here looking for bargains,” said Richard Barrow, a Thailand resident, teacher and proprietor of PaknamWeb, an English-language forum on Thai life. “Why fly all the way here to see an overpriced aquarium in the basement of a shopping mall?”

The sly signage is the most egregious aspect of foreigner pricing, Barrow said. He grudgingly tolerates vendors’ prerogative to base fees on race, but insists they should at least use globally recognized numerals so tourists are aware they’re being charged more. Presenting Thai numerals — rarely used even in rural markets — suggests trickery, he said.

Still, the trickery usually works. Most first-time tourists to Thailand, jet-lagged and struggling to compute the value of technicolor Thai bills in their home currency, won’t distinguish Thai numerals from Thai words.

“I suppose I’m taken advantage of. But I don’t like to fight,” said Pascal Bugnon, a Swiss tourist and father of two strolling near the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. “It’s just human nature. If we can get more, we’ll take more. Isn’t it like that all over the world?”

More GlobalPost dispatches about Thailand:

Teachercide in Thailand

The pageantry of the "Third Gender"

The week's other crackdown: the Karen