UPDATE: Asiatique has given in and announced it has unblocked from its Facebook page, as well as equalising the ferris wheel admission fee to 250 baht for all adults. This is reduced to 200 baht for all adults until the end of February. You can read Asiatique’s statement on its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/asiatique.thailand. Well done and thank you to Richard Barrows for originally highlighting the issue and to all those who joined in and made Asiatique (and its mystery foreign investor) realise the error of its ways. Dual pricing is still endemic – but this shows that things can change when we persevere.
Bangkok’s newest outdoor shopping centre and night bazaar Asiatique The Riverfront has spectacularly created itself a public relations nightmare on a monumental scale. When prominent British expat and Thailand-based travel blogger Richard Barrow used the Asiatique Facebook page to ask why a ride on its new ferris wheel, launched yesterday and dubbed Asiatique Sky, costs 200 baht for Thais but 250 baht for foreigners, the reaction of its page administrator was simple. Rather than engaging, they simply deleted his comments and proceeded to block him from their page. In doing so, they have turned an ill informed but manageable policy decision into a publicity disaster.
In this age of spontaneous social media activity, this was a textbook example of precisely what not to do. Censorship like this simply does not work, and this has been proven over the course of the last 48 hours or so. Richard highlighted on Twitter, his own Facebook page and his web site the course of action that Asiatique had chosen to take. Look at the Asiatique Facebook page now and you will see that it is plastered in negative reaction – from both Thais and non-Thais alike. Comments are now not limited to the original thread, but instead sarcastically query whether foreign customers will also have to pay more than Thais for music performances at Asiatique, and whether foreigners are served smaller food portions than Thais but pay the same price.
Richard’s comments have not reappeared, and it seems he remains blocked from the page of a tourist attraction he has until now given much free publicity, but the flurry of criticism is such that the company has struggled to keep up – the comments have simply appeared more quickly than Asiatique can delete them. Many have called for a boycott of the ferris wheel, while one particularly witty commenter asked if Thais only paying 200 baht would only be taken 80% of the way around the wheel. Elsewhere, on Twitter, TripAdvisor, and RichardBarrow.com, heated discussion continues to grow.
Where Asiatique has responded to the criticism, it has claimed that the pricing structure was based on a decision taken by the Dutch investor who runs the ferris wheel, and not by Asiatique itself. It says this investor sought to give Thais a discount since the ferris wheel is on Thai soil – and has tried to insist that ‘this is not race [sic] or discrimination’.
But, as Thais and non-Thais alike have picked up on, this view is at best naïve and at worst deliberately evasive, sneaky and simply untrue. Treating individuals differently from one another amounts to discrimination, whether we see that as a good or bad thing.
Even if we were to accept at face value the intentions of the Dutch investor looking to ‘thank’ Thais for ‘allowing’ him to do his business here, it is still discrimination, albeit perhaps positive discrimination. To pretend otherwise is simply foolish. Meanwhile, on Asiatique’s Facebook page, one of the many Thai users commenting picks up on the concealed truth – that this ‘is not a discount for Thais’, but ‘extra for foreigner[s].’
Dual pricing is not new – in Thailand it is endemic, and represents a complex, long-running and wide-ranging issue. But what has surprised many is that a brand new, internationally run tourist attraction, that ought to be leading the way in setting an even playing field for Thais and non-Thais, has made such a hideous blunder.
That dual pricing is unconstitutional is by the by. Under Section 30 of the Thai constitution, ‘all persons are equal before the law and shall enjoy equal protection under the law’, while ‘unjust discrimination on the grounds of the difference in…race…shall not be permitted’ – but government-run facilities operate dual pricing as much as everyone else, if not more.
Visit a national park and, as a foreign citizen, you will pay as much as ten times more than the Thai in the queue in front of you. In fact, just in October the entrance fees to the twenty-nine ‘grade A’ national parks – among them the popular Erawan national park in Kanchanaburi – were increased to 100 baht for Thai adults and 500 baht for foreign adults.
The ride aboard a third-class train from Bangkok’s Thonburi station to Kanchanaburi costs a foreigner 100 baht, while Thais pay just 25 baht. On the same train, the short ride from Kanchanaburi to the next stop at the River Kwai Bridge costs a Thai just 2 baht (yes, two baht) – foreigners, though still have to buy the flat-rate ticket for 100 baht.
Take the train to the famous railway market in Mae Khlong, where the tracks run right through the market and vendors pull up their awnings to allow the train to pass through eight times a day, and Thais travel free – this is a route subsidised by the government. Non-Thais pay, albeit only 10 baht.
All of these are examples of state funded or subsidised attractions that use dual pricing. They are at least partially financed using the taxes of those who live and work in Thailand, so perhaps it is understandable that those people should pay less than the foreign tourist in the country for a two-week holiday. They can afford it, right? They have paid a vast sum of money to fly all this way for pleasure, so there is little doubt they have the money to pay whatever is asked of them to get into a national park or take a ride on a train.
Here, I have trouble disagreeing – to me this doesn’t seem wrong, though I expect it does little to mend the reputation of a tourist industry bruised by Thailand’s recent political troubles. It echoes calls made by those in the British capital a few years ago for a ‘Londoner’s discount’ at popular attractions for those living in the city, who would otherwise be out-priced at some of the costly tourist sites not far from their own doorsteps. The difference is that I have no doubt that, if such a system were introduced in London, those wanting to obtain this discount would (rightly) be expected to produce some form of identification as proof that they were indeed resident in London – or perhaps even elsewhere in the UK.
The same should be true here in Thailand. Foreign nationals living and working in Thailand pay (or ought to pay) taxes just as Thai citizens do (or ought to). Their taxes contribute to the funding of national parks, free train services and so on in just the same way as the taxes of Thais. The logical conclusion is that anyone living and working here ought to be entitled to the same admission fees to state-funded attractions, whether that be at the same or a lower rate than that expected of foreign tourists who do not live or work here.
On the very modest salary that I earn from my job in Bangkok (which is higher than a great many Thais earn but also far lower than the salaries of a great many other Thais), I pay no tax. But neither would a Thai earning my salary – that is just the way the tax thresholds work. I should not expect to have to pay a single baht more to enter a state-funded attraction than a Thai friend who has exactly the same tax obligations as me – simply because I have a white face and was born in London and she has an Asian face and was born in Bangkok.
Instead, what happens in Thailand is visual profiling. Your 500 baht admission fee to enter Erawan National Park is based on your white (or black) face, not whether you have identification with you to prove that you live and work here. Thais similarly are charged 100 baht because they look Thai. They too might be here on holiday – perhaps educated, living and working abroad (in which case chances are they are quite a bit richer than me anyway) and paying no taxes in Thailand either, despite their probably considerably higher income.
In fact, they might not even be Thai! The intrinsic flaw with the system of visual profiling as it exists is that guessing someone’s nationality from their face is fallible – fallible, subjective and based on the prejudices (conscious or subconscious, intentional or accidental, malicious or innocent) of the individual making the assessment. This makes the system of visual profiling inherently racist, and indeed non-Thais slip through the net. Reports are common of citizens of other Asian countries outside Thailand whose appearances fool those at national park ticket offices, railway stations and so on making these assessments on a daily basis.
What Thailand needs is a version of the Thai citizen ID card that is issued to foreigners living and working legally here. A card that does not proclaim me to be a Thai citizen, but a legal foreign resident. I don’t drive and should not have to learn to do so in order to have a Thai driving licence to use as proof of my status here – again this puts obstacles in my way simply because of my racial origin; Thais do not have to take a driving test in order to get an ID card.
Even producing a driving licence as proof of legal status when asked to pay an inflated foreigners’ price is no guarantee of success – the sheer inconsistency in approach to the matter means that you are at the mercy of the mood of the official you meet – the same reason producing a passport, visa and work permit is also often not sufficient.
Because the other part of the solution is ensuring that EVERYONE is asked to produce this identification if they want to obtain the reduced rate of admission. I should not have to make a point of asking for the resident price and showing my ID to back up my request, while someone with an Asian-looking face – perhaps they are Thai, perhaps not – sails through. That’s like telling Rosa Parks that, in order to stay seated when a white person gets on the bus, she needs to show proof that she is human while we just assume the same about the white person. Thais without their ID card should also expect to pay the inflated foreign tourist price, just as I should if I forget to bring my foreign resident ID card with me. Charge us for an ID card at the same rate Thais are charged for their Thai citizen ID card, and then leave it up to all of us to show the card if we want to get in at the residents’ rate.
This is all a very long way from Asiatique and its decision to charge foreigners a measly 50 baht more than Thais. Asiatique is no national park and certainly no train, and it isn’t taxpayer funded. It is a private enterprise that has no business deciding to charge one group of people more than another purely on the basis of the colour of their skin or the country they were born in. But they are far from alone. Aside from the unofficial tourist scamming practices of taxi drivers who refuse to put on their meters and tuk-tuk drivers who insist that the Grand Palace has burned down for the eighty-seventh time this month (but that gem shop they know just down the road is still in one piece and open for business), plenty of other attractions from aquariums to nightclubs hike up their prices for the foreign faces whose business they ironically so often rely on.
Back in September, I went to the popular, largely outdoor Route 66 club on Royal City Avenue, or RCA, near Rama 9 Road. The place where everyone wants to be seen, it’s a hit with westerners who think they are trendy and Thais who think they are trendy because they go out clubbing with westerners who think they are trendy. Route 66 has instituted a foreigner tax of 300 baht, while Thais continue to go free. With my (Thai) friends now here and ready to go in, I very resentfully paid the entrance fee and got the 300 baht worth of drinks vouchers that come in exchange. Afterwards I asked Route 66 on Twitter how they could justify their policy, and in reply they told me it was an attempt to discourage groups of drunk westerners who come to the club and don’t buy anything.
As I made clear to them, I would be very surprised if they experienced problems with drunk westerners but never had a group of Thai customers arrive drunk and with no intention of buying a drink. They then went on to tell me that there was no need for me to worry because I would ‘get 300b coupon can use buy all drinks [sic]’. This is true but, as is so often the case in these situations, they failed to get – or didn’t want to get – the fact that this is not about the money. This is about the fact that, the second I step into the entrance to Route 66, someone looks at my face and decides that I am not Thai and therefore need to buy 300 baht worth of vouchers before I can be trusted to go inside.
A minimum charge, if one is going to be implemented, should apply to everyone – Thai and non-Thai. Section 30 of the Thai constitution guarantees me the same right as a Thai citizen (or a non-Thai Asian person who happens to look like a Thai) to walk into Route 66, decide I don’t like it and walk out again without buying anything – or to not have that right if others don’t either. I don’t mind paying 300 baht if everyone else is being charged 300 baht too, particularly as in all likelihood I will buy 300 baht worth of drinks anyway – what bothers me is the principle that I should have to and someone else shouldn’t.
I make the distinction between state-funded entities like national parks and private businesses like Route 66 and Asiatique because, in the case of private businesses, there should be no difference in pricing regardless not only of your skin colour or racial origin but also regardless of whether you are in the country as a tourist, as an expat living and working here or as a local born and bred here. These businesses receive no funding from any taxes a local or expat pays that a tourist doesn’t, and the practice of charging them more – quite besides being detrimental to the tourism industry and to Thailand’s wider image as a tourist destination – is nothing more than dressed-up racism.
Back to Asiatique again. However wrong, the fact that a business is charging foreigners more than Thais is nothing new and should come as a surprise to none of us. But three things stand out about this case. First is the miniscule difference in price – just fifty baht between the two – which means that all the negative publicity this has generated probably won’t even be worth it for Asiatique in terms of massively increased revenue.
Secondly, the fact that this is a new, modern and foreign-owned attraction. In their largely misguided attempts to quell the wave the of discontent, the administrator of Asiatique’s Facebook page has made much of the fact that the wheel is owned by a Dutch investor whose decision it apparently was to offer a ‘discounted’ fee to Thais. It is perhaps surprising to see a foreign investor penalising foreigners for, well, being foreign.
Many of those calling for a boycott have indicated that they will keep this to the ferris wheel and not other parts of Asiatique. Perhaps it would just be too inconvenient to support a wider boycott. But surely we need to challenge Asiatique’s own line that it has had no part in setting the pricing policy, ‘just like we’ve never set food & goods price in each restaurant and shop’, and question why they have allowed a business to open on their grounds that openly supports discriminatory two-tiered pricing.
Finally, and arguably most importantly in this case, comes the role of social media and the magnificently blundering way that Asiatique has underestimated its unwieldy power. The current fiasco is not the result of the dual-pricing decision itself, but rather the choice of some unknown minion on its marketing team to delete Richard Barrow’s original comments on the company’s Facebook page. As others have noted, that person probably won’t have the best start to next week, but the company appears to be trying to bury its head still further in the sand, likely an attempt to prevent loss of face, by apparently deleting the pictures of the ferris wheel it had previously made such a big deal of promoting on its Facebook landing page.
Another notable element of this case is the support shown by Thais who appreciate the injustice of this policy. We already knew that many reasonable Thais felt this way, even if they often feel powerless to do anything about it, but the outpouring of comments from Thais on Facebook and elsewhere – in both languages – strengthens the argument against dual-pricing and makes it yet harder for the likes of Asiatique to justify it. The Bangkok Post, too, has picked up on the story, labelling it a ‘public relations disaster’ and a ‘problem of its own making.’
Among the overwhelmingly negative social media response to the debacle, some foreign apologists have attempted to justify the practice, claiming it doesn’t matter if there are two prices. This simply isn’t true. As ever with dual pricing, it is not a question of cost but of the principle of being discriminated against. Thais are not charged a higher price for using the London Eye or the Singapore Flyer, both similar attractions, and would rightly be outraged if they were. One Thai person involved in the discussion makes a comparison with the cost of education in the UK, higher for EU citizens than those from elsewhere. The point does not hold up – both because the UK education system is at least partly taxpayer funded and because my education in the UK did not come to me at a lower cost than my Thai, South African or Japanese friends simply because I had a white face – it was because I produced identification to prove I was a British citizen.
Others suggest asking a Thai friend to buy your ticket for you. But the fact is that this should not be necessary. This is the 21st century and supposedly innovative companies like Asiatique should be embracing equality and a progressive agenda, not moving things backwards and spreading racist policies like dual pricing further still.
2pricethailand.com lists sites that disguise their dual-pricing policies, giving foreigners the right to choose the places they frequent – the site also contains a helpful chart at the top of every page to help you learn numbers 1-10 in Thai script.