Wednesday, September 15, 2010

diff'rent rates for diff'rent folks

Is it discriminatory or looking after their own when Indians charge exponentially higher prices for foreigners than for residents to enter tourist destinations?

That's the question that Donnie, Blonde Kim and I debated with Prati and her sister, Priti, late into the night in Delhi after we returned from our whirlwind Taj Mahal trip (coming to you now from Darjeeling, by the by, which involved a cross-country flight and a car ride up a steep, treacherous and lushly beautiful road above the cloud line).

It cost 40 Rupees (less than $1) for Indians to enter the Taj Mahal, while foreigners each pay 750 Rs. (more than $15). Coming from the states, Donnie, Kim and I felt it discriminatory that different people are charged different amounts. In the U.S., we argued, we may have different rates for children, seniors and veterans, but it doesn't matter how rich or poor or what color folks are--any old person speaking any language and hailing from anyplace will pay the senior rate to enter a given attraction.

Prati and her sister argued that India is so dependent on tourism and its own population is so poor that it depends on foreign cash to bolster its economy, that tourists make so much more money than the average Indian per month that it's really no burden to pay more and that, even if it is morally wrong as we three Americans were claiming, it's how the system works.

I don't dispute the fact that Indian citizens are much poorer than people of many other nations, especially with the Rupee-dollar exchange rate working against them. But I maintain that it's logically flawed to say that all Americans (we focused on what we knew in our argument for why foreigners shouldn't be charged more) are wealthy. I'm not wealthy. My dollars go far here, but my return to the U.S. will mean a return to paying  U.S. rates for everything. I'm just lucky. Most "poor" Americans would never get to come here at all with a variety of socioeconomic factors working against them. And the "Indians are poor" reasoning is a valid argument for instituting government-funded assistance programs or the like, but viewing cultural sites like the Taj Mahal is in no way necessary for existence. Tourists--Indian and foreign--make the effort to travel here to see and learn and, yes, to spend some money. And we should all be treated the same when we do.

I'm open to other viewpoints (Hi, Prati!) in the comments.


  1. I would argue that is not logically flawed, though, to say that all Americans who travel to India are wealthy within the context of the Indian economy. Also, I think to call yourself (or me, or any other American who travels to India) "just lucky" is a bit disingenuous- it's not just luck that got us there, it's money and privilege. And (apparently I have a lot to say about this) I think it is a cultural good that the Indian government make it more feasible for Indians to visit the cultural sites in their own country, even though it is obviously not necessary for existence. The higher fee for foreign tourists probably subsidizes this. How messed up would it be to have an cultural site that many/most of the people whose culture it is couldn't afford to visit?

  2. But should it be our responsibility to subsidize their in-country tourism? For the record, Prati said you articulate her take very well, and I don't fully disagree with either of you.

    There are plenty of poor Americans, and while we don't subsidize their viewings of the Statue of Liberty--and imagine how many Americans can't afford to travel to and stay in NYC to visit it--some people's tax dollars help other people eat, etc. That's something that makes more sense to me than making it feasible for more Indians to see cultural sites while doing nothing vis-a-vis kicking more fundamental effects of widespread poverty.

  3. Hello from Laura! Thank you for allowing us this window into your travels.

    We do have something similar here in the U.S. People from Waterford pay more than New Londoners when they visit Ocean Park Beach, and people from New York pay more than people from CT when they visit Harkness state park. We don't charge more for nonresidents at our national parks, but we do it at the local level all the time.

    As for allowing Indians to see cultural sites while doing nothing to kick more fundamental effects of widespread poverty: it's not either/or. Here in the U.S., we have poverty; we have homelessness. Does that mean that until we've eradicated poverty and homelessness that we shouldn't spend anything to support the arts?

    Lastly, you can view your higher rate as a surcharge for being a foreignor, and think that you are subsidizing India's domestic tourism. Or you can consider that taxes probably partially fund the Taj Mahal; therefore if you don't pay a higher fee, Indians are subsidizing your tourism. Surely that is less fair than you subsidizing theirs.

  4. Laura!! Good thoughts; I especially bow to your first point.

    As for the third: I don't know what percentage of Indians pay taxes and what percentage of that percentage goes to upkeep of heritage sites. The thought of googling something like "Indian tax structure" terrifies me, so I'll just say that we can't make assumptions about where the money goes. And I'd also maintain that arguing everyone should pay equal admission is not the same thing as arguing against funding for the arts -- not a direct parallel.

  5. It's been interesting food for thought. I think one reason Americans and the Indians have such different reactions, for the most part, is that here in the U.S. we've had such visible racism and xenophobia. In my lifetime, some swimming pools and restaurants were segregated. So of course we recoil against people of different ethnicities being treated differently, especially as a matter of public policy. But in India perhaps the bigger problem was the caste system. (I hope Prati will correct me if I'm wrong.) So to make the Taj Mahal more accessible to more Indians is a step forward--yet not doable if foreigners also paid so little. Also, India escaped from the British Empire more recently than we did, so national pride carries more weight.

    I hope I'm not coming across as nutty returning back to this. I had to think through some of my assumptions. It's been an enjoyable challenge.

  6. You're nutty, but not for thinking through a reasoned, smarty-pants argument :)

    Did you know, btw, that we began our trip enjoying a bit of your soap that Kim had brought with her?