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The Great Tourist Rip-Off?

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Did you know that Argentina charges Americans a $130 tourist entrance fee or that a day entrance to Petra could cost you up to $127?

I always hate laying out money on entrance fees, but I usually just grin and bear it. After all, if you've traveled halfway around the world to visit a country, it'd be a little foolish to miss out on the highlight. The entrance fees to Petra in Jordan have recently taken a huge jump and it got me thinking, are we all a little selfish in our outraged reaction to rip-off fees?

When Argentina introduced a tit for tat entrance fee for tourists in 2009, the reaction was part indignation and part a patronizing dismissal of short-sighted government pocket lining. Surely to charge visitors outlandish fees was highway robbery that would only serve to reduce visitors and tourist income? The thought seems to be "don't they realize how important my holiday is to their poxy economy?"

Personally, I have to admit to a little partisanship. I am most definitely piqued that when tourists come to the UK they get free entrance to all our wonderful museums. Whilst I support the social benefits of making museums free resources for locals, surely it wouldn't hurt to charge wealthy tourists for access to our cultural gems? I guess the argument is a little flawed given half the exhibits are ill-gotten gains from hyperactive colonialism, but I'll leave that as a side argument!

On a more serious note, the reality is that it is easy to over-estimate the impact of travelers on local economies. Ultimately, governments can't leave it to the free market to extract economic benefit from tourism. After all, luxury tourists often limit their spending entirely to a bubble owned by a multinational hotel chain, whilst backpackers are often little better, scrounging every penny they spend.

At the end of the day, it comes down to good old fashioned price elasticity of demand. I'm sure the consultants employed to review Petra entrance fees have done a little market research and figured out that if someone wants to visit Petra they will visit regardless of the entrance fees. It is hard to argue with cold hard economic rationale. Charge them and they'll still come!

Unfortunately, the situation is only going to get worst in the future. On a trip to China several years ago, cultural sites like Lijiang, Dali and The Forbidden Palace were busier with tourists than I have ever seen in the honeypots of Western Europe. The source was entirely domestic Chinese tourism. When we begin to compete with increasingly affluent Chinese and Indian tourists at the key sites then we are going to have to get used to watching prices rise as economics work their course.

The moral of the story is Petra may be expensive now, but unfortunately it is only going to get more expensive in the future and that is assuming you are lucky enough to get a permit.

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