We had two extremely different experiences in similar situations in two Egyptian towns, and were left thinking why things must be so in an otherwise excellent country.
First was Aswan, famous for its High Dam and Lake Nasser that former Egyptian President Nasser built to control the flow of the Nile. Our guide there was a local man called Ahmed, and after the first hour or so we realized this guy was a gem of a person: uncomplicated, free spirited, and thoroughly enjoying his job. We were quickly friends, and at the end of the end we asked if he would accompany us to the local markets: we wanted to shop for souvenirs. He agreed, went with us, and translated while we looked and bargained.
It was a good experience. The prices were reasonable, the shopkeepers were pleasant, and we had a happy time moving around. Indeed, it was only the ticking clock that made us come home for the night. We were content, and were heavier by a few pounds with the shopping bags we had acquired.
Our next major stop was Luxor. We went around the place with another local man, also called Ahmed, and at the end of the day we requested him too, to accompany us to the local markets: my mom had remembered that she needed some more things to give away as gifts. Alas, Ahmed of Luxor had another engagement for the evening. Nevertheless, he dropped us off at the local markets, and warned us that we must remember to bargain ruthlessly.
In we went, and were pretty soon completely shell-shocked. What we had bought for 30 Egyptian Pounds (EGP) at Aswan, and for which the shopkeeper their had originally asked EGP 40, was now being offered to us for EGP 150. How can you bargain with that?? For the item that we are familiar with, we know what the prices should be. For something that we are unfamiliar with, how much bargaining can we do? We were soon disgruntled, and left the place fuming.
A number of thoughts come to mind.
First, it’s not just that the two different places reacted differently to a group of obvious foreigners who were there to have a feel for their items; the presence of a local guide probably had a major impact. When they have a local man doing the talking, the foreigners are ‘friends’ of the local man, and are not to be cheated from; by themselves, the foreigners are suckers to be extracted money from. Big difference, isn’t it?
Second, Luxor is more commercialized and famous as a tourist destination; this presumably drives the prices up in a small-ish city such as Luxor. Lots of foreign tourists with cash to spare, and not too many markets to compete among themselves to bring the prices down. Voila!!
We were pretty disgruntled at our experience, and were promptly uttering statements such as ‘This doesn’t happen in Kolkata / India… it’s much better at home’. Indeed, we were reminded of what practically everyone we knew who had come to Egypt had told us: beware the local shops and such, they will take every opportunity to extract more from you than you should.
But on second thoughts, does it not happen at home, in Kolkata? I am reminded of the bargaining that we ourselves have to do at major shopping zones such as Gariahat, the times when a bag priced at Rs 1000 is sold for Rs 400. Isn’t that the same thing? The only difference is that at Kolkata, we’re the locals, we know what the prices should be, and can shout the shopkeeper down when he says the prices are right. In Egypt, we don’t know the prices, and we can’t bargain as well as we need to. Big difference, no?
The other thing that I can’t help wondering about, is why the prices must be driven up. Surely, over time, the idea that prices are high at such-and-such shopping area will filter out to even new arrivals at those places, and they will desist from shopping there? Doesn’t it benefit both the shopkeeper and the tourist if the tourist is assured that the prices are genuine, and he doesn’t have to bargain and heckle with the shopkeeper? The tourist gets a good price, and the shopkeeper sells more items, thereby increasing his total income. Yet, that’s not happening. What’s the economics working here?