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As perfect hosts we need to ensure safety of tourists

China Daily | Updated: 2012-08-14 10:10

The three most common phrases a tourist or foreigner hears in China are, "Friend, friend! I give you best price!" or "Oh no! Too little, I lose money, you give me little more", and the old stand-by "How many you buy?"

Like moths drawn to light, we can't resist the siren's call of "Gucci" bags, "Burberry" trench coats, "North Face" parkas and "Callaway" drivers, all for slightly more than the cost of a bucket of chicken at KFC. Whether at Silk Alley, Pearl Market, Taobao City or other goods malls, which foreign national hasn't left with an armful of black plastic bags stuffed with bargain "luxury goods" to take home?

However, inauthenticity comes at a price. Shopping at these places requires patience, an iron will, comfortable shoes and not losing your bargaining wits, as the same item you want can be found at five other vendors a few meters away. But the vendor is a formidable opponent: Like the art of fishing, they follow simple but time-tested methods to reel you in.

As perfect hosts we need to ensure safety of tourists

Usually they cast off with the old acquaintance line - "I know you! We met before, come in my friend!" Not wanting to admit that you don't remember them even if it's your first time in China, you walk in having swallowed the bait.

If that doesn't work, the vendor enthusiastically grabs your arm. Most of the time, this move is done by small females because they're not very threatening even though their hands become super-glued onto your sleeve. Next comes the question "How much?" Like most tourists suspect, prices are determined on a sliding scale, the paler the skin, the higher the price.

The average Chinese worker would spit his rice out in laughter at the astronomical prices quoted to tourists. The process turns into a long operatic slog with the buyer bargaining for a lower price and the vendor claiming poverty and sick relatives to take care of all the while complementing your newbie negotiation skills. You take your prize leaving the vendor with a 100-1,000 percent profit. Everyone is happy, or so it seems.

Recently, however, British foreigners were allegedly assaulted in Shanghai at the wholesale market on Qipu Road, also known in Chinglish as "Cheapu Road". Steve Bateman claims that he and his wife were followed by two vendors for half an hour, when their efforts to persuade them to buy fake Armani jeans fell on deaf ears, the vendors assaulted them in an isolated area in the mall. Police later arrested five vendors and vowed to tighten up safety in the area.

Now call me old fashioned but getting beat up seems to take the fun out of bargain hunting. Many times I have felt like man-handling or more realistically with my marshmallow-like physique - forcefully raising my voice at vendors who sold me "iPods" that shuffle but don't play, shirts that shrink two sizes after the first wash and watches that tell the time - just not in my time zone.

I am all for the "customer is king" creed as opposed to the "customer is a punching bag". Officials with Shanghai Xingwang International Fashion Shopping Mall, the location of the alleged assault, said vendors who beat up foreigners cannot be properly punished under the law unless the victims are seriously injured.

Should we wait until that happens? China's tourism industry brings in over 2 trillion yuan ($314 billion) annually, a significant portion of that from overseas tourists. Like beachside muggings in Phuket, car jackings in Mexico City and pickpockets in Rome - crime however big or small plays a significant part in tourists choosing to visit the Great Wall or Great Barrier Reef instead.

It's time to clean-up miscreants preying on innocent shoppers and ensure a safe environment for everyone. As good hosts and a top 10 tourism destination, we should make sure the only pain tourists feel is limited to their wallets.

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