Two-Tier Pricing in Phuket
There are a few names for it, two-tier pricing, dual-pricing, double-pricing or just plain cheating depending on your outlook. It is the common practice of charging higher prices to foreigners than to locals. Sometimes, it is an officially sanctioned two-tier pricing system by a business or organisation. Often, it is just the unofficial policy of local people.
Here in Phuket it is common practice. It happens at museums, the aquarium, the zoo, the national parks and the shows. It will happen if you take a tuk-tuk, it happens when you shop at the market or tourist stalls. It happens all over the island.
I was reminded just how prevalent this practice is in Phuket by a recent visit to the Gypsy Restaurant on Koh Sirey. Not many people will know this restaurant. Koh Sirey is the large island east of Phuket Town split from Phuket by a narrow waterway. The Gypsy restaurant is on the beach by the entrance to the Sea Gypsy village.
It is a pleasant little Thai style restaurant serving decent Thai food. There is a row of little salas by the beach with nice views across the bay. It is just a shame they don't make the effort to keep the beach clean.
It had been a long time since I last visited this restaurant but my wife and I were in the area so it seemed like a good place to get a bite to eat. We sat in one of the salas. There was a menu on the table so I picked it up and started browsing. It was all in Thai. The waitress dashed off to get an English menu. My Thai reading ability is good enough that I can slowly read my way through a menu so I carried on browsing. There was the usual wide range of Thai dishes at good prices.
The waitress rushed back with the English menu so I switched. My wife commented how nicely presented the English menu was. The waitress told us the local Pepsi supplier had provided them complimentary.
I browsed through the English menu and it wasn't long before I started noticing a few differences - you know where I am going with this. The first thing that caught my eye was the price of a large bottle of Singh beer. In the English menu it was 110 baht, in the Thai menu it was only 80 baht. The price of fish was 500 baht a kilo as opposed to 300 baht in the Thai menu. Gairng Kee-ow Wahn (sweet green curry) was 80 baht in the Thai menu. In the English menu it was 150 baht for a small bowl and 300 baht for a large bowl. The pattern continued throughout the menu, the prices were significantly higher in the English language menu.
When the waitress returned, I asked her why the prices were not the same. She smiled sheepishly and assured us we would get the Thai prices. So that is okay then.
This restaurant is out of the way and the majority of customers are Thai. However, you do get a few tourists visiting the Sea Gypsy village and this beach is also the setting off point for Island Hopper Speedboat Tours so plenty of tourists do pass by and a few stop for something to eat.
I know quite a few restaurants in Phuket practice two-tier pricing to one degree or another. I have seen menus where they list the same dishes in Thai and English with different prices. When I have asked about this, they tell me they give westerners bigger servings - ermmm!.
This is the first time I have noticed a restaurant go to the extreme of printing two menus with a totally different set of prices but I am sure they are far from alone.
I am not one of those westerners that gets all outraged at the injustice of two-tier pricing. I know a few guys who will get in a hump and walk away at the first hint of dual-pricing. I treat it as just one of those petty-irritations that come with making Phuket your home. It is something to smile about and try to side-step to make sure it does not happen to you. Just an extra little hassle to try to get the local price. The fact is foreign residents can usually get local prices. The tourists are the real target.
I can even see the logic behind two-tier pricing. I don't actually agree with it but if I was playing devil's advocate, I could argue the case. After all, with many locals earning around 200-baht a day, it would be harsh to ask them to pay 100 baht to enter a national park or 500 baht to visit the zoo.
I don't even agree with the often-used argument that they are being stupid and are putting short-term profit ahead of long-term repeat business. The unfortunate fact is they probably are making more money by over-charging foreigners. Many of these tourists will never know they paid more than the locals. Even the tourists who know they were over-charged were probably only passing anyway. It is better to cheat them once and make a big profit than to give them good prices with the slim chance that some of them may return.
It is true that I will not be rushing back to the Gypsy Restaurant but then I was never a regular customer anyway. The small amount of business they will lose from me and a few other local residents will not cancel out the profits they make by over-charging tourists.
The big problem with two-tier pricing is on a national basis it just sends out the wrong message. While there are many like myself who can laugh-off the barefaced cheek of it, there are many others with a stronger sense of righteousness. For these people it can leave a bitter taste in the mouth. The message that two-tier pricing sends out is that it is okay to over-charge and cheat foreigners. If the Thai government sanctions it at national parks, if business sanctions it everywhere, then it is no wonder that individuals practice it in their shops, restaurants and tuk-tuks.
I have lost count of the number of times I have wandered around markets and heard the stallholders quoting different prices to locals and tourists. They will even do it when the customers are right next to each other. To the Thai customer they will say 'roi baht', to the tourist 'three hundred baht, very good price.' They do it right in front of each other and no one blinks. The Thai customer does not for a second consider telling the foreign customer they are being overcharged. It is just the way things are done and the majority of Thais accept it. Why shouldn't they when their government is doing the same thing.
The problem is not the amount of money involved. The problem is it is not respectful to foreign visitors. It is a statement that it is okay to treat foreigners worse than locals. It is the first step in making foreigners targets. If it is okay to overcharge foreigners, then why shouldn't they also be targeted by con artists? Why shouldn't they be targeted by muggers? It is just the next step.
Two-tier pricing sends out the message that it is okay to target foreigners. The long-term effect of this is that Thais stop seeing foreigners as guests and start seeing them as cash cows. The hospitality for which Thailand is so famous is slowly whittled away.
Thailand is still a fantastic country to visit full of wonderful and friendly people offering great hospitality. However, attitudes to foreigners are not as universally positive as they were. There are many factors behind this. Foreigners are a much more common sight in Thailand these days and some of them could help us all a lot more by showing more respect to Thai culture.
Two-tier pricing is one of the negative factors in the treatment of foreign visitors that slowly erodes away the respect Thais hold for their foreign guests. The Thai government could set the right example by ending two-tier pricing at public venues.