The Traveler’s Dilemma

At a glance it may seem that travelers and prisoners have nothing in common, but they both face a dilemma. Aine Seitz McCarthy of Big Ideas blog recently posted her thoughts on “The Traveler’s Dilemma: To Haggle or Not To Haggle”.

I’ve heard people say it’s for the principle—because people always jack up the prices [to tourists] at least 200%.  Even so, the quick buck we save means so much more for their standard of living than it does to us. I’ve also heard people say ‘but if you pay full price, then all the prices will slowly go up.’

[Full disclosure: She writes like a true economist and I follow her blog because she is a PhD candidate in the Applied Economics program at the University of Minnesota, a parallel program to where I plan on spending the next several years of my life.]

I am a pretty serious haggler in Tanzania. I’ve been stewing over this question though, and have several answers to why I do it, none of which is individually sufficient:

1. I actually gain utility by getting more stuff for a cheaper price. 

2. I am indoctrinated. The world of economics has taught (peer-pressured?) me to believe that I gain utility by getting more stuff for a cheaper price. It is certainly true that I would be happier if my rent went down. But how much utility do I really get from acquiring a beautifully designed fabric for $5.50 instead of $6? Slim returns on fifty cents and I’m already skeptical of the notion that utility gains are objective (i.e. I am fully aware that the $1 earns much more utility for the vendor than it does for me). But, hey, I’m supposed to care about maximizing my utility and its still money, right? Feasible.

3. Price inflation externality. Or, “if you pay full price, all the prices will slowly go up.” The only time I experienced this was when I went to the most touristy market in Arusha and tried to make a few vendor friends the day before all my Americans friends arrived in Tanzania. Generally, though, I’m not under the impression that my individual bargaining has that much of an impact on prices. Not extremely likely.

4. Bravado. Real Tanzanians bargain. I speak Swahili. I know the market. I do not want to seem like an ignorant tourist. I’m hate feeling like an outsider. Doing the stuff that Tanzanians do earns me a little bit more respect- not the kind of respect that a boss has by virtue of her position, but the street-cred kind of respect that you have to work for. It’s nuanced, never fully attainable and almost frivolous, but it earns me two points in my favor since I’ll never get stop being a white spectacle. Highly likely.

I tend to adhere most to reason number 4. For better or for worse I tend to think of myself as a (relatively) experienced traveler and part of that means I like to think I know how to not get fleeced on the street or in the market.

For me the analysis can go a bit deeper. I think whether to haggle or not totally depends on where you are and what you are buying.

When I take a matatu (cheapest transportation option) in Western Kenya I make a point of asking a friend how much the going rate is and make sure to not pay more than that. The same goes for taxis, downtown parking, and guesthouse hotel rooms. These goods are necessities and I purchase them because I’m a human being and I sometimes need to use public transportation, usually need to park downtown, and a place to sleep for a night or two. If I did not exist the sellers of these goods would still be selling these goods and they would be selling them at the local market price. When I haggle the mate on the matatu, I’m belaboring the point that if I wasn’t sitting in his vehicle, someone else would. This person would be paying (say) 300 KSHS, and the mate would be happy to earn his take from that transaction.

There are other things that I really don’t have a problem paying more for. These are things that I do because I am an outsider and purchase because I want a souvenir or an experience to remember my year in Western Kenya. This is touristy shit like cowry shell bracelets, red Maasai blankets, and soapstone coasters (that, confession, I actually buy). It also includes admission to National Parks. These goods would probably not exist if I (where “I” represents the Western traveler) did not exist (with the exception of course of Maasai blankets as those are actually warn by the Maasai, but are generally not purchased by locals at shops outside supermarkets that also sell earrings). Tourists should pay more for these products because these products are sold specifically to tourists.

Like most rules, there is an exception. Sometimes the seller of tourist-isty goods expect tourists to haggle. This is usually the case in relatively high-traffic areas where many sellers are selling essentially the same thing and price negotiation is the most ready form of competitive advantage.

I guess travelers have more in common with prisoners than it initially seems.

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