In recent times, Sri Lanka has seen an unprecedented tourism boom with visitors from all over the world flocking into get a taste of our island’s delights. The conclusion of the war, renewed stability and a spate of publicity in the international arena have served to showcase Sri Lanka’s attractions perceptibly. However, there are some areas we need to address so that tourists can leave our shores knowing full well that they had a pleasant experience overall.

One area that needs to be addressed is the discriminatory pricing structure for tourists and locals in stores. An expatriate friend domiciled in Australia, on a visit to Sri Lanka recently expressed his deep consternation at the blatant price discrimination he experienced. While browsing in a shop located in the premises of a Southern hotel, he expressed interest in a Batik shirt on display. However, on examining the price tag further, he was surprised to see the tagged price – US$ 85.00!

As he was about to put it away, the store owner suggested he buys it for Rs 1,500 if he wanted it. That amount would translate to around US$ 12 whereas a tourist would have to pay seven times as much. The fact that my friend could speak the local language put him in an advantageous position.

Many travellers are finance-savvy and can calculate speedily if the asking price of an item seems exorbitant. If it does, it is quite natural for the tourist to reject the purchase as an unnecessary indulgence. So it is helpful for store owners and suppliers of merchandise to get a realistic handle on pricing structures. There is a school of thought that believes prices in Sri Lanka are cheaper than those in the developed world. This is not entirely true.

Some items are hugely inflated in Sri Lanka when compared to their equivalent prices in capital cities such as London, Sydney or New York. The humble T-shirt is one such item. Electronics is another. Gizmos such as IPads and IPhones cost a lot less in the USA than they do here.

Even in the area of food, there is a huge disparity in the price structure and the item supplied.  In Melbourne for example, on an average a large pan pizza could be purchased for around Rs. 750 on a week night.
It would be near impossible to purchase the same item in Sri Lanka for the same price.

Many restaurants charge premium prices for modest portions that are indifferently cooked, believing that the tourist would believe he was up on the deal. This again is an unjustified myth.  While our fresh produce might be superlative and our customer service might exceed expectations, the lower rung of restaurant menus tend to be overpriced. The upper tier of restaurants and the smaller snack bars seem decent enough value; but it is the mid rung that often has people feeling they have been short changed.

While disparity in prices charged for services such as entry tickets to National Parks and Sites are justified, there should be more restraint exercised when tiering price structures for goods on a discriminatory basis – local and foreign. Foreigners are charged a higher fee in local hospitals too. The same system would apply in Australia or Singapore for example. There would be a significant price difference in what a tourist and a local resident would pay for a doctor’s consultation.

Bargaining is not part of the local shopping culture, although it is the norm in neighbouring India and the rest of South Asia. Therefore it would be a move in the right direction if store owners choose a satisfied customer over a one-time profit making exercise. Many tourists shop for souvenirs to take back to their countries, but most visitors will have a cap on how much they are willing to spend on a souvenir. For a merchant, keeping this in mind might induce a culture of treading carefully when overpricing merchandise, and instead aim for customer recommendations that will have visitors return time after time.

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