If you had been standing outside Hagia Sophia, at the heart of Istanbul’s historic centre, on Monday morning, you may have noticed something of a kerfuffle. Perhaps. Or perhaps not. There is always something of a crowd scene in the plaza outside this fabled Byzantine cathedral turned super-sized mosque, as visitors queue for entry in a line that can snake around on itself several times – tempers consistently fraying as those without the patience to wait try to jostle in. At Hagia Sophia, a certain chaos is part of the process.
However, on Monday morning, the chaos was different. Rather than the standard hubbub, it was the sort of confusion that comes with a radical change of system. Where, 24 hours earlier, all those arriving had filed in together, suddenly, there was a (much-increased) €25 admission charge for foreigners – and a separate way in, described in one account as akin to “a garage entrance”. The grand main doorway is now reserved for Turkish nationals heading inside for faithful observation – reportedly, non-Turkish Muslims are also required to pay that chunky €25 fee, even if they have come to Hagia Sophia to pray. The same news coverage mentioned “surprise” among mosque officials and visitors alike.
In some senses, this can be seen clearly for what it is. A political statement. Hagia Sophia has become a cause celebre for the Turkish president Recep Erdogan; an easy prop to help him cement his relationship with a core supporter base that comprises Turkey’s most traditional and religious citizens. In 2020, he restored the building to full Islamic use, reversing the 1934 decision to preserve a structure of immeasurable historic worth as a museum. Erdogan only narrowly squeaked re-election last May, after a run-off. You do not need to be an expert in Middle Eastern affairs to understand what has happened here.
But equally, the news reignites an old travel debate. Is it reasonable to charge foreign holidaymakers (in some cases considerably) higher fees to visit key tourist sites than those for whom a particular monument or ancient citadel is part of their national heritage? Should domestic visitors pay less to see a special location than those who have flown in?
This, after all, is not really an unusual practice. Thailand – to pick upon one notable example – has a two-tier cost policy for its entire national park network. The fee for international visitors is, across the board, five times higher than the price for nationals.
In the smallest parks, it is 100 baht for foreign adults, as opposed to 20 baht for their Thai counterparts; at the top of the scale, a visit to the islands of Mu Koh Similan National Park, out in the Andaman Sea, sees 500 baht face off against 100. And if you are, for example, a British tourist who wants to admire the limestone karsts of Ao Phang-Nga National Park, including Instagram staple “James Bond Island” (Khao Ping Khan), you will pay 300 baht for your pleasure, where a local sightseer will only have to pony up 60.
Cambodia takes the same stance. Entrance to its most feted attraction, the Khmer temples of Angkor Archaeological Park, is free if you are Cambodian, but requires a pass if you are not – US$37 (£29) for one day, US$62 (£49) if you wish to wander the site over three.
There is one minor cheat code – but it’s a very long-winded way of getting in for nothing. In 2022, the Cambodian government announced that foreign nationals who have been resident in the country for two years are entitled to a free Angkor day pass, once per year.
Is all this right and fair?
One of the generally proffered justifications for a two-tier pricing structure is that foreign visitors are charged at the market cost for admission to an important landmark – while locals are allowed a reduction on account of being taxpayers whose wages have already contributed to the site’s upkeep. Moreover, when the landmark is a place of worship, it is also surely unreasonable to charge locals a cash amount to enter somewhere that is not only central to their personal beliefs, but a place that they might need to visit frequently.
Another solid argument is that the costs of running, for example, a national park are sizeable, and that higher fees for international tourists help to support this – while permitting residents to enjoy the best of their own country, at a rate that is not prohibitive.
Personally, I have no problem with this. As a British citizen, I hail from the world’s sixth richest country according to current GDP. My wages and standard of living reflect this. Is it such a burden to ask me to pay a little more to see world wonders in Cambodia (which sits in 110th place in the international GDP league table) or Thailand (which sits in 30th)?
My instinct is that, in countries where the income gap between hosts and guests is not so much fraction as chasm, then yes, asking foreign visitors to pay more to subsidise the system is not unfair. The average salary in Cambodia is three million riel (£570) – much less than the amount it costs every European or American visitor to travel to this fragile, war-damaged corner of the Far East. And having spent a blissful day at Angkor Wat in the relatively recent past, watching the sun set over its 12th-century turrets, I would also suggest that £29 to glimpse one of the true wonders of the world is very much a bargain.
Even if you are prepared to complain about Thailand and its 500 per cent national-park surcharge for foreigners (with its 30th position on GDP, it ranks higher than the likes of Denmark, the Czech Republic, Finland and New Zealand), it is worth considering the actual cost to you, the tourist. That 300-baht price tag for Ao Phang-Nga National Park equates to £6.75 – hardly a teeth-grinding amount to enter a revered beauty spot whose photo moment looks as glorious now as it did in 1974 in The Man With The Golden Gun.
Leaving aside the likely political motivation for the decision, I don’t even have a particular issue with the new fee at Hagia Sophia. I had the privilege – and it was a privilege – of visiting the complex last year, when the entry cost was much less than €25.
Would I have refused to pay it, had it been in force in May? Absolutely not. Hagia Sophia is a near-incomparable treasure; at root, a sixth-century basilica, that, though, converted to a different creed, wears its back-story in gorgeous mosaics and frescoes. And it does so while standing in one of the planet’s foremost cities, east and west meeting on the Bosphorus banks. Twenty-odd quid to see it, via a side-entrance? Sure, show me the way.
Granted, you might argue that a building of such indisputable global relevance should be free to all, globally. But then, Hagia Sophia is hardly the first religious structure to demand a fee of those who are not visiting for the headline purpose. If you want to walk around St Paul’s Cathedral in London this weekend, you can do so for nothing if you are attending a mass, but it’s £25 if you are there for the acoustics of the Whispering Gallery.
There is one point of certainty in this discussion – such fees will only become more commonplace. Look to Paris, where you can find it in the admissions policy for The Louvre. All under-18s can enter Paris’s greatest art museum for free, but this dispensation extends to any visitor under 26 who hails from the EEA (European Economic Area). As of Brexit, this doesn’t include the UK. This is not, as some would have it, a punishment beating for recalcitrant Britain; merely a benefit lost on leaving a club. All the same, you will be €22 worse off if you hold a British passport, and fall into this eight-year window.
Should Britain respond by introducing multi-tiered museum fees of its own? Conversely, I would say not. The planet’s sixth richest country asking weighted prices of foreign tourists would be a distinctly shabby look – unless, of course, Britain were to acknowledge the size of its GDP by offering discounts to those visiting from further down the league table. Of course, this point is moot. Take a trip to the British Museum, or to the V&A, on Saturday, and you will notice that, wherever you come from, entry is free.