Haggling 'makes the poor poorer

Danny Blackburn,Cole Moreton
Sunday 06 August 2000 00:00 BST

Haggling - the holiday sport of western bargain-hunters all over the globe - is keeping Third World people in poverty, a British aid agency claims today.

Haggling - the holiday sport of western bargain-hunters all over the globe - is keeping Third World people in poverty, a British aid agency claims today.

Tourists who come home with tales of heroism in the souk, boasting of having hammered some hard-eyed stallholder down to the last rupee for a rug, may have unwittingly caused real suffering to traders already living hand-to-mouth, says the Christian agency Tearfund.

The charity, which supports relief and developmnent work in 89 countries, has just launched its own guide to ethical tourism - and it targets ruthless haggling as one of the great sins of irresponsible travellers.

"Pay a fair price," says the guide, called "Don't Forget Your Ethics". "If you haggle for the lowest price your bargain may be at someone's else's expense."

The warning has been backed by campaigners for responsible tourism - but other experts say that on the contrary, the modern traveller should not be afraid of arguing for a bargain.

"Haggling is almost part of the culture in some Third World countries," says Jemima Broadbridge, a spokeswoman for the Rough Guide books. "If you don't haggle they think there's something wrong."

Tearfund is a member of the Disasters Emergency Committee and helped found the Jubileee 2000 campaign to write off Third World debt. The campaigns director Stephen Rand says paying just a few pence or pounds more in the local market may not make much difference to the buyer but "could benefit the life of a poverty-stricken street vendor" in a developing country.

"Many of us know the thrill of coming away with a good deal after the cut and thrust of haggling, but well-made goods deserve to be sold for a fair price."

Tricia Barnett of the organisation Tourism Concern, which has long campaigned for responsible holiday-making, agrees that ruthless haggling can be a problem. "Sometimes tourists drive such a hard bargain that people find it difficult to make a living. If you really want something you should expect to pay a fair price, not the lowest possible price."

Jemima Broadbridge says travellers should temper their behaviour according to where they are - being generous to the needy but haggling hard when up against those who are out to exploit a visitor's naiveté.

"You should really pay a bit more in places like the Gambia that are really poor," she says. "They're very generous people who will willingly give up their entire month's food supply if you stay with them, so you shouldn't take advantage.

"In Cuba a tip of $10 can make a real difference to someone's life. In North Africa, haggling is expected and can be fun - but in places like Egypt they're used to tourists and are more likely to try to rip you off."

Daniel Jacobs, author of the Rough Guide to Tunisia, denies that tourists are exploiting people in developing countries. "Westerners should expect to pay more than locals, but often engaging in haggling is a way of being sociable. I once spent two days discussing the price of a sweater in north Pakistan - but it was more about spending time with the friendly shop keeper than trying to make him reduce his asking price."

Even the poorest traveller is a rich person in the Third World, says Mr Jacobs, who suggests taking goods to barter. "They are often worth more to the locals than to us. If you swap a pair of sweaty Nike trainers for a lovely rug then you think you've got a great deal, but to them those sweaty old trainers might really be worth something. It's a bargain for both of you."

Phil Haines, a travel agent in Twickenham who is proud of having visited every sovereign country in the world, has not seen much bartering. "Cash deals are the predominant way of haggling. In many places it is the done thing: in India, for example, if someone goes to the local market to buy spices they will haggle to arrange an acceptable price."

The trick is to be friendly and respect the other person's culture, he says. "Too many tourists don't communicate on other levels, they only see financial gain. The visitor can befriend the trader and come to an agreeable price. Then, if you can't afford it, simply shake the trader's hand and walk away. If you can, be pleased that you've bought something lovely - and shake the trader's hand."

The ten-point Tearfund guide to a more responsible holiday begins with taking time to read about the cultural, social and political background of the people whose home you are about to visit - and to learn a few basic words and phrases in their language.

Tourists should buy local goods and services wherever possible and pay a fair price for them. They should be sensitive to the culture - "dress and act in a way that respects beliefs and customs, particularly at religious sites" - so Union Jack shorts and topless sunbathing might be a bad idea in the grounds of a temple.

Ask permission before taking photographs of people or their homes, and expect to pay for the privilege, the guide says. Avoid conspicuous displays of wealth, which can "accentuate the gap between rich and poor and distance you from the cultures you came to experience".

Make no promises to local people that you won't keep when you get home. Minimise your environmental impact by keeping to marked paths, respect the natural habitat and "reduce the packaging you bring". And finally, the guide urges, "Slow down to enjoy the differences - you'll be back with the familiar soon enough."

In 1998 Britons spent £2bn on tourism to developing countries, which is almost as much as the Government's overseas aid budget. But often up to 80 per cent of the cost of the holiday stays with the travel company rather than entering the local economy, says Tearfund.

Earlier this year a survey commissioned by the charity found that more than half of us would pay an extra five per cent - or £25 on a £500 holiday - to guarantee ethical standards such as fair wages in resorts and the reversal of damage to the environment caused by tourism.

If those sentiments were put into practice by holiday makers, Tearfund says, it would be like adding an extra £100m to the aid budget.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in