To Pay or Not to Pay: The Ethics of Sightseeing



If there’s one thing that drives us up the wall, it’s entrance fees. In China, the fees were massive, often for sites that aren’t worth the price. The Terracotta Warriors exhibit, for example, was a huge waste of money. We paid 150 rmb each (about $22) just to see the same stuff we saw on the internet. As an added bonus, we got to be pushed around by hordes of Chinese tourists with giant cameras  and body odor.

So you see, after a time, we became weary of paying these fees. By the time we reached Guilin, we started refusing to pay entrance fees, no matter how small. What’s that? You want 30 cents so I can look at that elephant-shaped stone formation over there, because you have planted bamboo so passersby can’t see it for free? No thanks.  A few bucks to see one of the “must-see” sights of the city? We’ll pass. And parking? Well, everywhere requires a parking fee, even if you only want to stop the bike for a minute to run into a shop. Too many times we’ve had to pay for parking, only to find that the shop or market didn’t have what we were looking for, so 25 cents is still too much.

But, as you can imagine, there are still things we want to see, that have be paid for. We don’t want to fork over our hard-earned cash just so some guy in a hammock can pretend to safeguard our bikes while we go into a market for an hour. We don’t want to pay outrageously to see a natural waterfall or mountain just because someone decided to put up a fence around it.

So how do we get around it?

Well, quite honestly, we sometimes just simply, get around it. We walk around the fence or enclosure or whatever until we can find a way in.  We go in the exit, we play dumb, we pull the “I don’t understand” card and keep walking. Sometimes it works, but most often it doesn’t. More often than not we are told by a gruff old lady “no no no!” and we turn around. We’d often rather pay the fee than get into trouble.

Just the other day, in Pakse, we visited the ruins of Wat Phu, an old temple of the Angkor era. We drove our bike into the parking area, and as soon as an attendant walked over, Ricky took off and parked just outside the fence, outside of the parking area. Bam. Free parking. Then, we ignored the signs that pointed to the ticket area and walked straight ahead. Apparently, it was the exit, so no one was there collecting tickets. We saw the whole beautiful sight for free. (more on that in a future post)

But that brings me to a question. Is it ethical to do this? Should we pay every man whose only self-given job is to take money to keep an eye on our bikes?  Should we pay exorbitant fees to enter a non-man-made sight, like a waterfall? Does one of the biggest tourist attractions in China need to charge so much, just because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?  Do we have the right to refuse to pay to see these sights?

Now, there are a few sights that we have seen and were happy to pay for. Our visit to the Kong Lor Cave was pricey, but justified. Outside of the ticket window there was a paper explaining, by pie-chart, where the money went. 60% to the two guides, a few percent to the villages involved, and some to tourist centers in the villages. We were happy to pay for our guides, and glad to see that some of the money went to the village we visited and were welcomed to so kindly.

It is true that most entrance fees, especially in Laos, mean much more to the locals than to us. What’s $5 to us, when we have so much compared to most locals?  I’m sure that’s what they think as well, which contributes to the exasperating idea that foreigners are rich and willing to spend all their cash to see what the third-world countries have to offer, in all their rustic beauty. Despite our comparative wealth, we travelers are so often taken advantage of that it becomes nigh to unbearable to hand over the cash so earnestly sought after by gate-keepers of temples and caves.  All of those small fees add up, not only monetarily, but they also add up to an exasperating game we have to keep playing—haggling, bartering, giving in, giving up.

I understand that some of these entrance fees, like the one for Kong Lor Cave, go to good causes. They are for the maintenance of the site, or the small salaries of the locals who work there. This causes me to lament the increase in tourism in places like these. When towns like Vang Vieng, well known for its tubing activities down the river, accompanied by riverside bars, become solely tourist towns, the locals are caught in the middle. They have to satisfy the tourists and make money and the only way to do so is to claim they have something worth seeing for a small price.

But the question remains. Do we have the right to refuse to pay an entrance fee that we deem too expensive, or the sight not worthy enough? Not every ticket office has a pie-chart explaining where the money goes. Is it unjust to assume it goes straight to the pockets of higher-ups or those running the mock parking lot? Where do we draw the line between taking advantage and being taken advantage of?


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