Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

Should Tourists Pay More Than Residents?

A while back we received feedback from a guest that was very positive about our services, but extremely critical of Costa Rica for charging higher entrance fees for tourists than for locals.  I promised to think about it and respond.

Before I do so I’d love to know what you think.  Should destinations like Costa Rica charge tourists more than locals?  If so, why?  If not why not?  I’ll send a bag of coffee to person who sends the best answer.

Read what she has to say and let me know what you think.

“My last point deals not with CRE but with the country as a whole.  We were told several times that many fewer tourists from the US were coming than had come in the past.  I’m sure this is partially due to the state of the US economy.  However, we felt almost as though we were being robbed by the huge difference in the prices charged foreigners compared to those charged locals.  The implication was that Costa Rica only wanted us there to take as much money from us as they could.  The admission prices were generally noticeably higher than those charged by an equivalent attraction in the US.  The National Museum in San Jose (the one in the converted fort) seemed especially expensive and provided very little content.  We felt that we were being taken advantage of, since having traveled so far we would pay almost any price to see what we came to see.  I don’t know how much, if any, ability you have to make comments to whoever in the government oversees this sort of thing.  We are quite sure, however, that the high prices to enjoy the museums and national parks contribute significantly to the decrease in US tourist traffic.  We always mention this situation to anyone who is interested in a complete description of how we found Costa Rica, as I am sure do most US citizens returning from Costa Rica.”

Actually, she makes two points.  One is that charging tourists more then locals is not right.  The other is that the entrance fees for tourists are a bad value..

Since the writers specifically mentioned the entrance fee at the Costa Rica National Museum, to get some perspective  I checked to see what Museums charge in New York where Yolanda and I are on vacation.

The American Museum of Natural History Charges $16 for adults, $9 for children and $12 for seniors and students with ID.  (Every time I ask for the senior rate I pray they’ll ask me for ID and they never do.)

The National Museum of Costa Rica charges ¢1,500 (a little under $3) for locals and $8 for Tourists.

Since the AMNH dwarfs the Costa Rican National Museum, I looked for a completely different kind of attraction.  I came up with the  USS Intrepid a World War II aircraft carrier that is permanently docked on the Hudson River and open for tours.  Admission to the Intrepid, which includes, “access to Intrepid, Growler Submarine, and the film, Story of Intrepid,” costs $24.00 for adults, $20 for Seniors (62+ w/valid ID) and US College Students (w/valid ID). Youth (7-17) cost     $19.00. Veterans cost $17.00 and U.S. Active Military, Retired US Military, and Children Under 3 are free.

I have not done the tour so I cannot opine on whether it is worth it, but I’d sure like  to know how they figured out that veteran should pay $5.00 more than children from 3 to 6 and $3.00 less than seniors and college students

Then by coincidence on Memorial Day  we joined a Five Borough Bicycle Club Ride to the The USS LING, a Balao class W.W.II submarine, that is permanently berthed on the storied Hackensack River in New Jersey.  When we got there, we took a tour of the submarine. As is often the case, the guide was more interesting than the attraction. The tour cost $9 and lasted about 45 minutes.  It was a relief to get out of the bowels of the submarine, but the guide made it worth it.

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      • I can understand why this practice would seem unfair on the surface, unless of course you understand the nature of the economy here in Costa Rica. Wage scales are vastly different here than they are in North America and Europe. The average working professional here makes $800 to $1200 per month, while the North American counterpart makes four or five times that much. Virtually all of the State run venues here are grossly underfunded and they depend on tourism revenues to be viable. I have lived here in Costa Rica for 5 years, I also lived in Hawaii for 10 years. Most place in Hawaii offer local discounts as well. I think this is a common practice in most destinations in the world. Compared to a destination like Hawaii, Costa Rica has a lot more to offer at much more affordable prices. When you look at all that Costa Rica has to offer the traveler, it is one of the best values in the world.

        • At June 01, 2011
          11:06:54 pm
          Emily Le Moing said:

          Hi, Michael, and I hope you’re having fun in New York! Re. the post on different prices of admission at attractions, the prices you mention for the museum in Costa Rica seem like a steal to me, but the policy of charging different prices for non-Costa Ricans than for locals is definitely bad PR. Here in France where I live, there are, of course, many foreign tourists, and what the government does to give locals a break on admission prices for attractions is to make many attractions (like certain museums) free all the time and others free one day a week, and to offer all sorts of discounts (for kids, students, families, seniors, teachers, special groups, current and former military, and a few others). These free admission days and discounts are open to foreigners (with valid ID) as well as locals (students don’t have to be students of French universities to get the discount, for example), but locals take advantage of them more because we’re here all the time. This policy makes key attractions accessible for all locals without offending foreigners by charging them higher rates.

          • At June 01, 2011
            1:18:29 pm
            Gordon MacQueen said:

            On PEI this question is slightly altered to “Should summer residents pay higher property taxes than year round residents?” 10 years ago this issue was introduced in our legislature and is an annual source of hot debates and is especially irritating to summer residents who feel they are unjustly discriminated against. The justification for the differential tax rate is that summer residents place a higher demand on our infrastructure and utilities and force an expenditure on providing greater capacity that would otherwise be unnecessary. Our municipal waste treatment facility is near capacity and when overloaded untreated waste is dumped into the harbour, affecting the fisheries. Peak demand on electrical energy is also forcing increases in capital expenditure on new and potentially dangerous generating equipment (the recent meltdown of a nuclear generating station in Japan is a relevant reminder of lurking dangers). Expansion of the runways to accommodate larger and heavier aircraft, and of course the building and maintenance of highways to deal with summer travelers contributes to the argument for higher taxes for summer residents.

            On the other side of the argument, summer residents feel they are being hosed unfairly. In a perfect world all citizens would be treated the same. It is a lesson I try to teach those who will eventually take over my business. Friends and relatives who make purchases pay the same price as everyone else. Fridends appreciate the challenge of business and want me to stay in business. AND SO OUR GOLDEN RULE IS EVERYONE GETS THE SAME PRICE. Words to live by, but it doesn’t come easily.

            If an attraction does not offer good value then it should not operate. Better still, it should be improved. Making visitors pay a premium fee will inevitably make them feel used and undervalued. They are guests, but having to pay more than anyone else sends the wrong message. It certainly does not make them feel like guests.

            • At June 07, 2011
              12:10:24 pm
              Michael Kaye replied
              to :

              Gordon, Thanks for a very provocative comment. I can’t argue with your reasoning against giving preferential pricing to friends, but somehow I keep doing it and it feels good. Be that as it may, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to know somebody who is even more hard-assed than I am.

            • At June 01, 2011
              11:02:34 am
              William said:

              It’s interesting, travelling around the country, when you get into one of the situations.
              At a National Park, locals pay around US $2 to US $2.50 and travelers around US $ 10.
              When the question is arise, I explain that if most of the locals will pay the same as the travelers, probably the average Costa Rican family (2 adults and 2 children) will not possible visit the park more than once a year and how come the locals will learn to care about something that they don´t know?
              I discuss this with locals along my trips and it is interesting their perspective when they don´t know about a given location, park or building.
              20 years ago the volume of garbage along the roads in the country was huge, with some government programs and mainly activities at the schools, there was a change, and it’s not perfect!! But there is a change; that can be appreciated by the same locals that today you see them recycling or when they go to the country side, most of the families bring their garbage back home (Not like few years ago when they dumped along the road!!)
              Definitely, easy access to locals, along with education, really helps to preserve the National Parks and other Costa Rican historical places.

              • At June 07, 2011
                10:37:18 am
                Michael Kaye replied
                to :

                By way of disclosure and providing context, William is a top Costa Rica Expeditions naturalist guide.

              • At June 01, 2011
                8:50:54 am
                Ian Hiltn said:

                Not a difficult question to answer, really. Local citizens must have access to their history and to entertainment – and they must be able to afford it. The cost must reflect their means.

                So the average per capita income in Costa Rica is $6,260. The average per capita income in the US is 46,360 – and probably at least reflects the income level of those who can vacation in Costa Rica. A quick look at the attached URL tells quite a story.
                Ian Hilton, Toronto Canada

                • At June 01, 2011
                  4:06:42 pm
                  Carlos replied
                  to :

                  I agree with Ian. For me it is logical that locals pay a price in their own land according to the average per capita income. Just imagine an imaginary country with 10x the mean salary of the U.S. and that prices to visit your heritage and private attractions is marked by these tourist economies, so only foreigners can afford to enjoy the U.S. wonders. Probably you would think that it would be rather inconvenient. Costa Rica makes a strong effort in conservation and depends on foreign money of tourist to continue being so attractive and wonderful. I have a rather moderate salary as Spanish teacher but don’t mind to pay more than them: it is my contribution to encourage conservation in CR.

                • At June 01, 2011
                  6:33:22 am
                  Chris Parrott said:

                  Morning Michael,

                  to my mind this seems to be a no-brainer. It’s perfectly reasonable for visitors to pay a higher entrance fee than a local resident. The likelihood is that, even so, to enter the museum the visitor still spends a lower proportion of his disposable income than does the local.

                  The visitor from a developed country to a less-well developed country is also likely to be better educated (and have access to better education). If a local person is sufficiently motivated to visit a museum (and so broaden his knowledge), he should be rewarded for this.

                  To Costa Rica’s economy, incoming tourism is an export. It’s a means of earning income from economies that are richer.

                  The individual visitor may thus look upon higher entrance fees as his personal contribution to foreign aid.


                  • At May 31, 2011
                    9:28:48 pm
                    Debbie said:

                    There are many parks/natural areas and venues in the United States that charge a lesser fee for locals versus non-locals (meaning a local community, county or state) with the logic being that the local people have already paid part of the cost of the visit with their local taxes. I assume that Costa Ricans do pay their fair share through taxes and/or the costs to the country of maintaining such a large system of protected lands and that I, as a tourist, have not kicked in anything in advance of my visit so I am not troubled by the additional charge.

                    It seems like many countries with a large international tourism sector charge international visitors more. I feel very blessed to have traveled to so many places and feel like I cannot complain about what I have paid along the way as an international visitor when the fees are stated clearly up front. What I really dislike are the shady operators who try to get more money from me as a foreign tourist once I am in country and dependent on them. That is inexcusable. I never once encountered that in Costa Rica.

                    That said, I do remember feeling put off by the way the additional charge is put forth in some (but not all) places in Costa Rica. Maybe we noticed it more because our travel group consisted of 5 Americans and 1 Costa Rican (our neighbor from back home in the US) so we saw the differential rate in use often.

                    I think a bit of education/public relations on why the difference is there and what the money is used for would help many tourists understand and support the different fee structure and not be left feeling taken advantage of the way the original poster felt.

                    • At May 31, 2011
                      8:52:45 pm
                      Kathy said:

                      I think that often the two teir pricing scheme is seen in places where the income disparity between the traveling tourist and the local is so huge that if you figured it out on a relative basis, I’ll bet the tourist is still paying a far lower percentage of income. Also, many of the things we “value ” as travelers- perserved natural areas, native wildlife, or historical areas do not have the same value to local residents if they don’t have access to experience it, and them it is in danger of being lost! An example of this is how the local people around Torteguero have gone from eating turtles to guiding tourists to see them. Had CCC not helped those local people see the value of their natural resource, they may not have become invested in protecting it and educating others about it!
                      Additionally, I have seen first hand how discounting or favoring tourists over locals can engender bad feelings. My mother is a regular shopper who lives near a NE cruise port, and it makes her angry that shops will give a discount to thousands of cruisers who the shops will never see again at the expense of a local like herself who supports them multiple times and during the off season.
                      No one likes to feel ripped off- but it’s so important to remember that many local folks could never hope to travel in the way that many Americans can!

                      • At May 31, 2011
                        8:40:06 pm
                        Nick said:

                        The re-entry fee at the airport was an unwelcome surprise.
                        I don’t think that proving your customers wrong is a particularly prudent means with which to rekindle whatever positive feelings hey may have while visiting you. Unlike most that have the money and time to spend however they please, I’m a 31 year old family man that doesn’t appreciate getting spammed what I interpret to be a combative email. You should entice, not rapid fire your latest argumentative at we stupid Americans.

                        • At June 01, 2011
                          12:55:42 pm
                          Kristen replied
                          to :

                          I don’t think Michael’s trying to prove anyone wrong, but simply analyze this issue with other travelers or travel professionals so that he can have their opinions on this issue (which is not, by the way, unique to Costa Rica). I think you’ve misinterpreted his message. Many tour operators wouldn’t take a second look at this kind of complaint since it’s tied to the policies of installations/institutions not under their direct control. Instead Michael has shown here and in so many other ways that CRE goes that extra step and thinks harder, truly pursuing excellence in their professionalism and listening/responding to their clients and making changes to their own policy/procedures/programs where feasible as a result of their feedback. Educating travelers on why things are the way they are (and maybe making them aware that this particular policy is not unique to CR) will make them wiser, maybe more compassionate, and I would think assuage some of the negative feelings they’ve expressed for paying more than locals for some entrance fees.

                        • At May 31, 2011
                          2:29:01 pm
                          Kristen said:

                          Michael, interesting subject. As you well know, in Cuba where we work there’s a 2-tier monetary system. Most museums and many public venues in Cuba offer separate prices in national money for foreigners and Cuban nationals or residents of Cuba. The thinking is largely that Cubans wouldn’t be able to afford to visit many of these places if the entrance fees were in hard currency. The privileged traveler (because like it or not, if you can travel then you are among the “privileged”) can visit multiple venues on one trip and it honestly won’t burn much of a noticeable hole in his/her wallet at all. If you ask me, many of these places are a relative bargain to visit even when paying the tourist prices. I can’t help but think the national money entrance fees don’t even really make much of a dent in the real cost of maintaining these places, but rather that the state in Cuba subsidises many of its cultural institutions/museums etc. In Cuba as a visitor you can see the national ballet and sit in the first 4 rows in the Gran Theatre for a mere $10 CUC while Cubans pay their entrance fee in national money, sometimes as little as the equivalent of about $0.15. But remember, the salary of the privileged foreign traveler is almost always of astronomical proportions compared to that of the native Cuban. And the CUC that the foreigner pays contributes to the ongoing maintenance, upkeep, and operating costs for the locale and artists.

                          In my other Canadian island of PEI, there are also sometimes “deals” for Islanders. For example, the PEI National Park offers season passes to local residents at reduced rates. But overall I think this is less common here in this part of the world. Although I don’t personally have a big objection to it. I guess maybe it’s because I think that part of a traveler’s responsibility is to leave behind something that will continue to sustain the community they’re visiting. Cultural institutions which can provide education, history, and local flavor are invaluable tools which can be used to increase the visitor’s awareness, knowledge and appreciation of a destination. I can see where reduced rates for locals (already perhaps familiar with many of these areas) might be an incentive for them to visit, and perhaps return. While a visitor will probably only just go the once, and that will be it.

                          That’s all I have time for just now, but look forward to reading everyone else’s opinions. They’re always so diverse and insightful.