Civilized trading in Duty Free Island
— Dr Balmick Fogooa
Fleeced in Cairo:
My friend France Cheng Hin and I left Mauritius on 27-Dec-1961, a hot sweltering afternoon. We reached Cairo late at night. It was winter and we had to spend five days there before catching another flight to Moscow, where a far harsher winter was awaiting us. Unlike France, I had no winter outfits. So, besides sight-seeing during the day, I was desperately looking for a jersey. Winter coats, boots, etc., were to be provided on our arrival in Moscow.
Since there was not a single Chinese shop to be seen in Cairo those days, every shop owner used to call us Mr Nehru and Mr Chou-En-Lai. It was obviously an artifice. Finally, I bought the much needed sweater for about 8 Egyptian Pounds, which our cab-driver pointed out was worth hardly 3 Pounds. I had been fleeced!
But how would I know since there was no price tag on most articles? And being in a foreign country, I did not want to haggle over the price. After that incident, I did not dare shop any more in Cairo, were I to be addressed even as Mahatma Gandhi.
I first visited the UK in 1965. I did a lot of sight-seeing and window-shopping in London.
I was struck by the high quality of clothing and footwear in the department stores compared to those in Communist Soviet Union.
But nevertheless, there was complete similarity and conformity in the ways trading was practiced in both countries. Every article had a price tag, an indication where it was manufactured, the size and the quality of the fabric — the basics of trading indeed. In such cases, even a deaf and dumb person can shop: no haggling, no bargaining! These are the very signs of civilized trading.
The Central Market
Going round the vegetable section of the market in Port Louis, one can notice the prices of most fruits and vegetables displayed in bold figures. But vegetables are vegetables the world over. That is, they are usually the cheapest of commodities. And what about clothing, footwear and other things on the first floor? Not a single price tag is to be seen.
Prices claimed mostly from tourists and other foreigners are according to the seller’s fancy. The same situation prevails at the grocery and souvenir sections.
So where foreigners could be cheated a few Rupees, that is in the vegetable section, display of price tags is mandatory. And where they can be fleeced by hundreds, it is the law of the jungle. Is it meant to allow profiteering by some blue-eyed Mauritians? This state of affairs unfortunately prevails throughout the whole Island.
Hence foreigners who do not have the culture of haggling, just Do Not Buy.
I suppose there must be laws guiding trading practices since time immemorial. But then, they have to be enforced.
Some 25 years back, Singapore was a favourite shopping destination of Mauritians because it was definitely cheaper than Mauritius, and civilized ways of selling are practiced to this day. No one can complain that this or that guy has been cheated by the cab-driver, in a shop or a restaurant. Hats off!
Duty Free Island
We are still a nation of cheats — almost the same type one may encounter in any Afro-Asian country. Just imagine a street vendor near the Port Louis market selling wrist watches. There are cases where the watches are initially offered at Rs.1,000. On the tourist’s repeated refusal to buy, the price comes down to almost Rs.100 or so!
Recently, at the Port Louis market, the then Minister of Commerce Michael Sik Yuen had to personally intervene after a complaint of profiteering was filed by a tourist from Reunion Island.
If government is genuinely contemplating to make of Mauritius a duty free island, we should start by putting into practice the basics of civilized trading in the whole Mauritian territory : Mauritius, Rodrigues, Agalega — on land, at sea and in the air.
Car and coach loads of tourists come to the Quatre Bornes market on Thursdays and Sundays with the intent of buying clothes and other items at affordable prices. Many of them just do window-shopping and go back to their hotels. One can find them peeping into the shops without stepping in just because of a total absence of price tags on the articles.
It is embarrassing to see tourists inquiring about the price of something in the sign language. The same applies to our taxicabs. The foreigner is totally at a loss about the price that would be charged, just because of the absence of a meter.
Late Cardinal Margeot used to remind all stakeholders of the tourism sector that tourists should not be taken for bank-note printers.
In 2002, on a flight to London, I happened to sit besides an English couple. They had come on honeymoon and put up in a 5-star hotel in the West. The husband complained to me that he had to pay Rs.110 for a bottle of water in the hotel, while at the shop it was on sale for Rs.6.50! Just imagine the impact that would make on our tourism sector if such information were relayed around the world. These hotels call themselves Haut de Gamme. My foot!
Honesty: The best policy
There is a department store in Quatre Bornes which sells at discounted price on every Wednesday, which is as well a market day there.
On my way from Port Louis on Wednesday 2 Nov -2011, I made a stop-over at the said supermarket just to buy a couple of dairy produce. I don’t know whether it was due to that day being a public holiday, but believe me, I had never seen supermarkets so overcrowded with people queuing at the cashier with overloaded trolleys. And the more so with vegetables and fruits which were sold there at lower prices than at the vegetable market! I left without buying for I would have had to stand in the queue for almost an hour.
This is the right way of trading: selling at affordable prices. I would go further to suggest that the other services such as dental, medical, taxi, etc., be the same for foreigners as for natives.
Only when such requirements are met that we can call ourselves a civilized nation. And dream of making the island a duty free one.
Dr Balmick Fogooa