Bargaining Abroad: 5 Ethical Haggling Tips for Travelers
Updated: Jul 26, 2021
The first time I visited in Senegal, one of the first things I noticed was the expectation to haggle for everyday goods and services. From negotiating the price of a souvenir at the market, to even the cost of a cab, waxale (Wolof for bargaining) is a huge part of the culture in Dakar. While bargaining with merchants provides a great opportunity to get to know locals and participate in local culture, Western tourists, often hoping the culture of haggling will mean they can get any and every thing for dirt cheap ,often unknowingly exploit it.
A glaring example of this is the altercation between Pasang Gurung and Gemma Wilson a few years ago. In September 2017, a video depicting a Nepalese merchant (Pasang Gurung) chasing a white British tourist (Gemma Wilson) down a mountain went viral. The original video depicts Wilson running away from a furious Gurung, who is throwing rocks and shouting, "You people are rich! Why bargain?" The video garnered mainstream sympathy for Wilson, but a later interview with Gurung revealed a series of events that Wilson chose to leave out of her video and that disrupt the narrative that casts Gurung as violent and unreasonable and Wilson as an innocent victim.
In the moments leading up to the video, Wilson had been hiking up the mountain and stopped at Gurung's shop for a cup of tea. Wilson insisted on drinking from a larger cup than what Gurung normally serves her tea in, and Gurung obliges, telling her that the tea is 150 rupees (as opposed to the 50 rupees Wilson was used to paying). Wilson, angry about this price, drank the tea and threw the 150 rupees on the floor, berating Gurung in English. Wilson then began taking photos of Gurung's stand with the intention to post them online and ruin her business, taking Gurung over the edge and leading to the altercation we see in the video. Wilson conveniently neglected to include these details in her account of the story. The truth is that it all started because Wilson, a wealthy British tourist, was prepared to ruin Gurung's small business all over a $1 price discrepancy.
This situation provides a glaring example of how cultures of bargaining can be exploited by tourists. Wilson thought she was getting ripped off because she was a foreigner, but in reality, the price was only higher because Gurung had to pay extra for the tea to be transported to the the remote mountain area where her shop is located. But even if this wasn't the case, it's extremely exploitative for Wilson to not only disrespect Gurung by throwing her payment on the floor but to intentionally try to harm her business over a one dollar price difference that Wilson could, without a doubt, afford.
While this altercation may seem like an extreme example, Wilson's attitude is one that many Western travelers take up when dealing with fluid prices. In this blog, I'll present some ways for travelers to be more conscious of how we participate in bargaining when traveling, particularly in countries in the Global South, many of which have been exploited and economically crippled by western imperialism and colonialism.
Here in Senegal, haggling is everywhere. When you hail a taxi, you negotiate your fare before getting in. When you go to purchase fabric, you negotiate the price per meter. When you go to the market for souvenirs, you negotiate the price for each item. While bargaining can be a fun way to break the ice and get to know locals, it's important to be considerate of your own privilege when participating in this seemingly harmless practice. It is quite easy for tourists to get caught up in the so-called "harmless fun" of trying to get the lowest price possible, but before doing so, consider the following tips:
1. Determine if bargaining is appropriate.
Different contexts require different behaviors. While bargaining is welcome and expected in Senegal, this is obviously not the case all over the world. Before embarking on your shopping trip, speak with a local or just do some digging on Google to get a feel for the bargaining culture in your destination. Even in countries where bargaining is the norm, it may not always be appropriate. For example, in Senegal, if an item has a visible price tag, this normally means that the price is non-negotiable. It is also not customary to haggle for food items.
2. Remember that you are not entitled to the "local" price.
Ask yourself, why do you deserve the local price when you're not a local..?
This is probably one of the most important things to keep in mind in regards to haggling abroad. It's really easy to get offended by the idea of the "tourist tax" (higher prices charged to foreigners) and grow contempt with the fact that it's hard to get the "local" price. During my first trip to Senegal this was something that I myself was guilty of, and this sentiment is at the root of the conflict between Gurung and Wilson. It's really important to remember that this entitled attitude is born of colonial and imperial power structures, and when we carry it with us when we travel, we reify these exploitative systems. Our travels do not exist in a vacuum unaffected by histories of imperialism and colonialism. When we travel, the legacies of our races, nationalities, and ethnicities travel with us.
We must remember that tourism is often a privilege afforded to those who have the disposable wealth to travel for leisure. Even if not for leisure, well-funded study abroad programs and scholarships (e.g. Fulbright) are most often operated by Western countries who hoard wealth– wealth most often obtained through histories of colonizing and exploiting countries in the Global South. These histories create class inequalities, inequalities that we must grapple with, especially when traveling. Given these inequalities, it reeks of privilege (and frankly, willful exploitation) to expect to pay the same price as folks who live in material conditions drastically different than the ones that allow you to travel in the first place. Set your ego aside and accept that you should not expect, nor do you deserve, the local price.
3. Try to determine a price range ahead of time.
If you go to the market knowing what you want, you can prepare yourself by asking around ahead of time to find out the average price for the item you're looking for. This can be a bit tricky, but asking around about prices, or even just doing a quick Google search, can help you determine a decent range. When I'm not sure how much to pay for something, I ask local friends what the general price is and go to the market with that in mind. This helps assuage a lot of the uncertainty about not knowing how much something should cost and helps you avoid offending anyone by giving a ridiculously low price.
If asking around doesn't work for you, you can also determine a price you're willing to pay on your own. If you go this route, it's important to be flexible on your price. It's also important to consider how things like time and energy that go into making handmade products rightfully come along with higher prices.
4. Be respectful.
Respect should be a general rule of thumb when traveling in a foreign country (and just like... in general...). This is doubly important when you're haggling. Wilson shows us the exact kind of behavior we should avoid when traveling. You are not entitled to any particular price or special treatment just because you're a foreigner. So always be kind.
If you, however, decide to act like an ass, you should also be prepared to be treated like one...
5. Don't overdo it.
Many merchants rely on daily income to support themselves. Driving a hard bargain when you can afford to budge a little is, without a doubt, exploitative. If you are someone who has the means to travel for leisure (even if on a budget), driving a hard bargain to get that necklace to be $1cheaper is just... doing too much. Suck it up and come up on your price– you can swing it.
Keep in mind that the above tips come from my own experience, most of which has been in Senegal. Different cultural contexts will, of course, require different approaches to this subject. The point is that the choices you make when traveling are informed by the lasting legacies of colonialism and imperialism. Remember that the wealth that affords you your trip comes from the imperialism and wealth hoarding that directly creates the conditions of poverty under which many in the Global South live. If you have this is mind, and you're still concerned with paying 2 more dollars for a bracelet, maybe you're just a jackass.