Being a foreigner in Sri Lanka – or white at any rate – is pretty easy most of the time. It can be a bit annoying being tall and white on days when you want to get a fair price on an un-metered tuk-tuk or at the market, but most of the attention I get is friendly – people just want to chat and say hello. I get treated a whole lot better here than foreigners get treated in my country, that’s for sure.
But over the two years I’ve spent on this island, there’s one issue that keeps cropping up: the different pricing scheme for foreigners at Sri Lankan cultural sites. I have a residence visa, earn in SL Rupees, and pay taxes, but when I visit sites I end up paying tourist prices – purely because of the place of birth on my passport*. And this can cost as much as 50 times the local price in a number of cases. This strikes me as pretty discriminatory and, no matter how many times it happens, it’s frustrating.
I tried to get an answer on why from the Chairman of the Department of Cultural Affairs on Bullers Rd last time I was passing, but he was “at a meeting” when I stopped in. Funnily enough, the “meeting” lasted for over an hour, so eventually I got fed-up and left. As far as I’m aware, the official policy is that a resident visa doesn’t entitle you to a discount at sites managed by the Cultural Department unless you’re a diplomat or work in a government position (but please correct me if I’m wrong, someone).
While I could see an argument for slightly higher prices for tourists from wealthier countries, I honestly don’t understand why a price distinction continues when a foreigner stops being a tourist and becomes a resident. Surely the distinction, if one has to exist at all, should be tourist and non-tourist, not Sri Lankan and foreign? And this issue has a racial element to it in practice as well – I’ve visited tourist sites with foreigners from other Asian countries who, because of their skin colour, look more Sri Lankan (at a glance) and haven’t been singled out and made to pay more, while I’ve been charged the full tourist fee.
Even though I acknowledge the argument for a tourist/local distinction could have a little validity, I still think the difference in prices is over the top, and actually discourages many tourists from visiting cultural sites when holidaying on the island. Sigiriya, for example, is actually the most expensive tourist attraction I have ever visited anywhere in the world, and I’ve visited a fair few in my time. A number of friends who came to Sri Lanka during my time here have decided not to bother with Sigiriya purely based on the cost. Similarly, I decided not to visit the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy when I first came to Sri Lanka in 2010 as a tourist because it was just too expensive.
Even though it seems the policy is to continue charging tourist prices for residents, it’s applied fairly inconsistently in practice (though most places I’ve been that are government managed do end up charging me as a foreigner). One place may charge me a local price one day and a foreign one the next depending on who’s working, and different sights charge local and foreign despite all being managed by the department.
All this means that I still don’t know if I’m considered a foreigner or a local, and it seems it changes depending on which benefits the country most financially (I.e. I am when it comes to paying taxes and am not when I visit the museum). I find this a little hard to take because this is my home now, so why should my place of birth and skin colour continue to affect how much I pay?
*Incidentally, this happened to me at a restaurant on the coast road between Galle and Mathara once too.
So, where do you stand a chance of getting in with your visa? Here’s a list of some of the places that I’ve got in as a local with my residence permit:
1. The National Museum, Colombo (though others have reported being charged foreign prices here. I think it depends on how the guy on the door is feeling).
2. Temple of the Tooth, Kandy (though apparently I shouldn’t have been allowed to, someone informed me afterwards).
3. Yala National Park
4. Perideniya Botanical Gardens, Kandy
These places have charged me foreign prices despite me showing them my residence visa:
1. Sigiriya (now close to Rs. 4,000 for foreign, approx Rs. 70 for locals)
2. Dambulla (Roughly Rs. 1,300 for foreigners, free for locals)
3. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa (I forget how much, but similar to the Sigiriya price for foreigners and cheap or free for locals)
4. The Dutch Museum, Colombo (though they bought it down to Rs. 300 from Rs. 500, I refused to go in as my Sri Lankan companions were being charged Rs. 20).
Apparently the Independence Monument Museum has different pricing for foreigners and locals as well, though I’m not sure exactly what the prices are.