I would say the number one bone of contention between my husband and I when travelling is money. Having come from a culture where prices are generally set and there is little room for negotiation, we have never been overly comfortable with bartering for goods and services. We believe in paying a fair price, fair for the buyer and the seller. However, we have heated debates over what that fair price is?! What is a swindle, and what is being affordably generous considering the relative situations between a person in the developing world, and a middle-class tourist from the developed world? Negotiating for souvenirs in economies far different from your home country can be challenging. Here is my personal philosophy when it comes to making purchasing decisions abroad. I’m no economist, this is purely based on my experiences travelling and negotiating for souvenirs over many years.
Reading forums relating to specific destinations gives me a rough handle on what people have paid previously. If I have an idea of what I would like to buy, I research tips and tricks for telling genuine or high-quality items from fakes or low-quality products. I also look at the minimum wages in the country I’m travelling to (more on that later).
2. Cut out the middle person
Buy from the person who made it wherever possible. In Laos, I found it easy to get right to the source and bought scarves in small weaving villages where they were being made, rather from centralised, tourist markets where I know the price is higher and I don’t know who or where the true manufacturer is. Not only is it more interesting to visit the villages and see the items in production, but I can more easily tell how genuine they are.
I look for Fairtrade stores and galleries in more developed areas. My husband is dismayed thinking I pay tonnes more in these retail stores than down at the local market, but my conscience is eased, knowing the artisan has been fairly compensated for the goods they produce.
4. Ask for guidance
In the past, our tour guides have often conveniently disappeared when we came close to making a purchase. Due to language barriers we are often negotiating via a calculator and can’t ask detailed questions about the product. Now we let our guides know ahead of time that we expect their assistance in determining how genuine a product is and estimating a fair price.
5. What did it take to make?
As a lifelong crafter, I have a greater appreciation for handmade items. I understand the time it takes to lovingly stitch a quilt, make a doll, bead a necklace or paint a picture. So if I am suspicious a price is on the high side I casually ask how long the item took to make. Based on the minimum hourly wage in my home country multiplied by the hours it took to make, I can usually tell whether the price is reasonable. Even better, research the minimum wage in the country you are travelling to and use that as an indicator. This Wikipedia list of minimum wages by country is probably not entirely up-to-date but is good for a quick reference.
6. What is it worth to you?
When all else fails I decide based on what I think the item would be worth if bought in my home country. When in developing nations, generally items are much cheaper than I could buy them for at home, so as long as it feels reasonable, I don’t barter too hard. My husband doesn’t like this method as it doesn’t take into account the lower living expenses in these countries, but usually, the price they’re asking doesn’t go anywhere near what I’d pay at home.
Some would debate that by paying more I drive up prices generally and then tourism dries up because it is no longer a “cheap” destination. I haven’t seen tourism dry up in the developed world because it’s too expensive, I just see different values applied in different locations. I don’t believe we should hold some people back just so we have the luxury of holidaying on the cheap.
There are other good reasons for not paying artificially high prices, which is why taking the time to do your research and negotiating for souvenirs is important. I address some of these in my ethical souvenir buying post here. You can also download my Soulful Souvenir Guide as a pdf from the same post. It contains over 135 genuine souvenir ideas for countries around the world – let’s go shopping!
Peace, love & inspiring travel,