Last week, I wrote about scams and how to avoid them while traveling based on an experience I had with a cab driver in Buenos Aires. The comments on that post raised an important point. There is a marked difference between tourists and locals, particularly when traveling through the so-called developing countries. Most times the distance can be measured monetarily.
In Bocas del Toro, a sign at the local boat dock advertises one dollar for the short boat ride across the bay to Isla Carenero, the island where we lived. That price drops to fifty cents if the boat guy knows you. And if you're family or a close friend -- often one and the same in Bocas -- you might just hitch a ride for free if a tourist is already going your way.
Locals often assume that travelers are loaded, and most of the time, it's comparatively true. Backpackers tend to carry a lot of cash. Bloggers stash laptops and cameras in their specialized padded backpacks, also not cheap. Even the most frugal will usually have an ipod. Imagine that your third-hand beaten down ipod costs more than a month's even a year's salary to many people across this planet.
But just because a traveler has more money than a local, does that mean we should necessarily pay a higher price for the exact same service?
On the one hand: What difference does that fifty cents make to you? How much more would it mean to your boat driver and the family he supports?
Matador Travel talks about 10 Conscious Choices To Make On Your Next Trip in order to be a more responsible traveler which includes supporting local businesses. It also suggests you look at locals and see them not as beggars just looking for handouts, but really seeing the local boat man or the woman selling empanadas out of a bucket as people.
That's much harder to do when you know your empanada costs more simply because you weren't born locally. How are you supposed to look at the boat guy as just another human being when he looks at you as if you're little more than a human money dispenser? In addition, when all tourists agree to pay a higher level of pricing, the entire economic structure inflates, ultimately impacting locals as well.
Then there's Poverty Tourism, also so viscerally known as "Poorism." The concept, in its idealized state, allows those with travel money to connect with those who not only don't have travel money, often don't have adequate housing, schooling, clean water or shoes. But really, how often is the reality of a concept ideal? Poorism, and I sort of choke a little every time I type the term, by its very nature posits two separate groups of people. The Haves and the Have-Nots. The Us and the Them. What sort of real connection can be made under such circumstances?
Well, those with money are more likely to give if they see who they are helping. Would it mean more to know your ten dollar contribution to Bocas Education Service Organization (BESO) goes directly to buy shoes, uniform and backpack for a little girl named Rita, the adorable six-year-old whose hair is tied back with her favorite ratty pink ribbon? She's lived on the island her whole life, and without your help, she probably won't go to school. With an education, she can read, write and suddenly has the opportunity to be a teacher or work in a local business. Without an education, if she can't find a job cleaning for a dollar an hour or less, she may well end up in Changuinola working as a prostitute by the time she's fourteen.
Sounds harsh, but all too true, and you're not likely to find this reality in your average vacation photos.
So, must we simply accept the reality of separate pricing? The local one for those who live on less and one for those of us who have the money to travel. Or should we rail against this system, thus putting tourists and locals on the same level, eating the same foods, going to the same places and interacting as equals.
What do you think?
* * *
Photos courtesy of Alex Barth and bradipo's Flickrstreams