Monday, December 24, 2007

Model, Chandni Chowk

I bet none of the Mughal queens were this skinny.

When I was growing up, it was women like these who set the standard, thank god :)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Why are foreigners charged more?

A lot of people ask me why there are different entrance ticket prices for foreigners and Indians at many Indian monuments and sites, specially the Taj. Here are my thoughts:

If you are not an Indian passport holder, and you buy the combined ticket of EUR 12.5 for Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it works out to EUR 6 or so per attraction.

Here's a comparison with other sites, from a mix of developing as well as developed economies:

  • Tickets to Machu Pichu in Peru are EUR 18.
  • Tickets to Angkor Wat in Cambodia are EUR 10.
  • The entrance ticket to the Colosseum in Rome is EUR 16 for non-EU nationals, and there is a discounted price offered to EU Nationals of EUR 11.
  • Tickets to the Leaning Tower of Pisa are also EUR 16 at the moment
  • Tickets to the Giza Plateau and at least one pyramid - say Khufu - cost EUR 18.
  • Entrances to the Forbidden City in China are only EUR 4 (but that may be because the exchange rate is artificially held by the Chinese goverment).
So - after looking at these prices, my conclusion is - I don't think the Government is significantly overcharging tourists for the Taj / Agra Fort experience.

As far as the differential pricing for Indians is concerned - The Government of India subsidises tickets for Indians to promote our heritage and create more interest / awareness / national pride. Additionally, in a poor country, there is no way the man on the street can afford the kind of the prices that these monuments deserve. This is a dent in the Government coffers, but it is a decision in the national interest which the Tourism department has the right to make.

There is obviously a case to be made for levying flat fees for everyone - Indian or foreign - and I've heard that they're considering flat fees of INR 250 or so. But honestly, if you've been to Taj and seen the number of poor people that come there - none of them could afford this.

In any case, until we hear any decisions, all that I think you should ask yourself as a tourist is - am I paying a fair price i.e. did I get my money's worth at these two monuments for EUR 6 per monument?

I think the answer is likely to be a yes.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Shopping in India is a frame of mind

Many overseas visitors to India are taken aback at the kind of street shopping experience they have.

The touristy parts of the country - Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan - are full of pushy vendors trying to sell them things at downright outrageous prices.

I met an American lady recently who said to me, "Deepa, I feel so much at a loss...I'm the outsider, and I feel like I have to constantly watch out so I'm not cheated."

I thought about what she said - and here's my advice: If you're visiting India, and someone quotes you a silly price at the market, my recommendation is - Just smile and say no.

The thing is, if you look prosperous, vendors will always quote you a higher price. That applies even to Indian buyers. Sometimes when someone quotes me a totally wacky price, I just grin widely and say the Hindi equivalent of "Yeah right, go pull the other one". Then we haggle back and forth a bit, and when the price gets to the point where I think he's making a good margin, then I give in.

It's all part of the game.

To treat this overcharging-bargaining game as a personal insult, or worse, to think of yourself as a victim because this doesn't happen in your country, is just totally missing the point. You have to apply a different yardstick when you are in a totally different land. You have to tell yourself that this is how India's shopping culture works. No one is singling you out for extra-harassment...this is just a bunch of fairly poor people trying to get a few extra dollars off anyone who looks like they can afford it. In my MBA school they had a term for it - it was called "what the market will bear" pricing!

India is a both a destination and a journey. It has woven its magic for millenia now, on travellers from all parts of the world. It is a complex and rich culture, with so much to offer - but the rules are different.

To explore this sort of complexity, you have to step out from the comfort zone of neatly labelled racks and polite checkout greeters. You have to embrace the street shopping and bargaining spirit. It can be fun, actually. There's the crafty assessment of what something is really worth, the starting position, the bantering conversation and the give-and-take, the testing of each other's mettle, and the final agreement on how one particular shawl fits into the overall cosmic scene of things!

Travel wouldn't be half as interesting if the world was one big Walmart, right?