It's an accepted truth in India that foreigners will pay more than Indian citizens for pretty much anything. The price of a rickshaw in Varkala, the small tourist town in which I live, jumps up to between 150%-400% of normal rates if the person getting in is from abroad. The drivers do this because they can; foreigners generally don't know any better, and by their foreign standards of pricing, 400% at the day's exchange rate often sounds like a pretty good deal.
You'd think this subtle exploitation of foreigners would be limited to the less scrupulous, but believe it or not, Indian governmental bodies are in on it too. Of particular note is the gulf in entry fees for Indians and foreigners at India's many tourists sites – and we're talking a far, far greater discrepancy than the rickshaw drivers' paltry 400%.
Here's a look at the recent adult prices of some of these major Indian tourist sites (taken from other sites, prices may have since risen):
Taj Mahal, Agra: Indian Citizens Rs 20, Foreigners Rs 970
Fatehpur Sikri, Agra: Indian Citizens Rs 50, Foreigners Rs 485
National Museum, New Delhi: Indian Citizens Rs 10, Other Rs 300
Hampi, Karnataka: Indian Citizens Rs 10, Foreigners US$5
Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra: Indian Citizens Rs 10, Foreigners Rs 250
So, foreigners who visit these sites pay between 970% of the Indian citizen price and an incredible 4850% for the Taj Mahal. Just how defensible is this? Let's take a look in some closer detail.
It actually makes good economic sense to charge these greatly inflated rates, and there are a number of reasons why. As mentioned, foreigners are accustomed to prices being much higher in their home countries. For example, entry to the Anne Frank Museum in the Netherlands is €9 (Rs 600), the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art is US$20 (Rs 886) and the Tower of London is £19.80 (Rs 1460). In that context, the Taj – an acknowledged wonder of the world, with centuries of tradition and some of the most striking architecture ever created by man – is very reasonable at Rs 970. India is more and more a part of the global market nowadays, and if we take the established countries of that global market as a yardstick, India's tourist prices measure up pretty well.
There's a flip side to that coin, though. India's increasing financial clout means that its middle class is growing: more people in India have more money than ever before. Plenty of Indian citizens are thus on the same level of income – and often higher – as their tourist counterparts flocking to India's tourist attractions, especially the backpacker crowd who make up a considerable chunk of that tourist traffic.
Even with that in mind, however, the average income of an American or European is substantially higher than the average income of an Indian. No objective justification for equalising prices there, either. (My concern on that score is whether or not those Indians that are mired in poverty, who number in the hundreds of millions, are allowed adequate access to tourist attractions like the Taj – or are they shooed away at the door for having dirty lungis and no shoes? If any readers have any information here, I'd be very interested to hear it.)
Then there's people like me. I live and work in India, but I am not a citizen. My own income level is about the same as the average upper middle-class Indians who flock to sites like the National Museum on a daily basis, and I pay tax to the Indian government. In spite of that, the going rate for me is still 3000% of any citizen who enters. I'm an outlier though, a freak, comprising barely a decimal point percentage of the total visitors to these sites, so my misgivings can hardly be taken into serious consideration. Especially when I am part of a dying breed, thanks to the Indian government's recent ruling on a minimum salary of US$25K p/a for employment visa eligibility.
Now imagine you've travelled from afar, at great expense, to tour the great tourist sites of India. You roll up to the Taj Mahal and are greeted with a board that says “Indians Rs 20, Non-Indians Rs 970”. Would you refuse to pay in protest at such an exorbitant discrepancy, or would you suck it up and hand over your cash? The fact is that very few foreigners are going to come all the way to India and baulk at Rs 970 for the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, even when it's blatantly obvious that they're paying over the odds. The tourism board probably banks on this in its budgets, and might suffer greatly if they were to drop the price. And a price reduction wouldn't sell any extra tickets, so there is no economic advantage whatsoever.
Then the question is this: is it ethical? Should citizenship of a different country mean you have to pay more? Should citizenship of India entitle you to such an impressive discount? I'll keep quiet about this and let you make up your own minds in the comments below.