Ethical travel: Why astute travellers won't haggle at all costs

The sky is of a lovely blue. The sun is shining, there is music playing, not very loud but more in the background, it creates a relaxed but at the same time vibrant atmosphere. The square is full of smiling people in pretty summer dresses and trendy shorts. There are stall holders and many tourists, and even some locals having a browse (probably).

baskets colour south africa

I am in Cape Town on Green Market Square. Years and years ago, this market was a bit crazier, the lanes between stalls were sort of narrow and crowded, there was an amazing variety of clothes and handcrafted items, whereas these days it is all very organised and orderly. Things change right, that is just the way it is. The market is still a great place to visit. I can’t recall how much I bought here over the last (nearly) two decades. I love to go here to buy presents for friends and family and even souvenirs for myself. It is a tourist but also a creativity hot-spot. It is right in the CBD of Cape Town, it is surrounded by art-deco buildings, and there are cafes and small stores. The Green Market is a place where people create income, and in most cases they do this with all their heart.

Traders come early, they set up stall, rain, hail or shine, they smile the whole day, and they wrap every single item they couldn't sell in the late afternoon to put it back into storage. Traders worry about trends, about how to decorate the stall, so that it appeals to customers, and they plot sales strategies. And on top of that there are all these big and small maintenance issues of the stall too. Not to forget that there probably is theft too, and who covers their loss? And many of them do this every day of the week from Monday to Sunday. That is right, that is seven days per week. These people are real entrepreneurs, they give all they have and they believe in it. And they also create a nice atmosphere in the CBD of Cape Town.

Market places are the vibrant heart of towns

What happens at this market happens in this or in a slightly different version, pretty much everywhere else in the world too. Market places are the vibrant heart of towns. I don’t know about you, but the “buy local” phrase is everywhere these days. It sounds so friendly, so lovely, and decent. It gives everybody this very warm feeling. People even buy fair trade at home, feel good about it and forget all about it when travelling ...

It truly is heartbreaking when I see travellers at a stall and they barter like hell with the traders. Come on, you really need to do this? Someone must have told them not to pay the asking price ever, and they don’t want to be outsmarted by a stallholder. They know better.

Astute travellers don’t want to be outsmarted?

The astute travellers read all about it: determine a great price, bring a friend, don’t show too much interest, walk away, come back, smile, appear knowledgeable, try to get a deal with buying three for two etc. … Yes, that is all very clever. The remaining question is whether it is ethical to behave like this. And the answer is a clear and big no. You state you want to support the local community, why do you want to have everything as cheap as it gets? For most travellers wares on markets are so inexpensive, and they would never get anything like it at home for the same price. So why play it hard, why show the traders that you are the one that has got the power (aka the money)?

We as travellers have to change perception, not everybody out there wants to cheat on us. Traders on markets depend on the sale of their wares, it is their livelihood. Next time the urge to negotiate the lowest price arises, hold on for just a tiny moment and think about it. In these situations we talk about savings of a few EUROS, dollars (or every other currency there is). Ask yourself what difference would these make in your life, and what difference would these make in the life of the stallholder? I reckon you know the answer quite well. We can practice ethics every day and at every moment. We don't have to be super heroes, and we don't have to prepare for this. It is all about attitude. The moment we pay the trader a fair price, we treat that person as an equal. Act responsible and see how every time the world gets a little bit better.

Bartering for ethical travellers

Research appropriate price. You don't want to pay far too much just for the sake of it, because that surely destroys the local market.

Observe. Stroll over the market, and try to find out what others pay.

Listen. Talk to stall holders, listen to what they say, and see how they react.

Be proactive. If you feel it is too expensive for you, don’t buy it, others might pay the asked price and the trader will get a fair payment.

Respect the trader. Use your money to pay what goods are worth. If it is cheaper elsewhere that doesn’t mean that it is a fair price (maybe that person is simply very desperate to sell).

What do you think? Looking forward to hear from you.

From Berlin with love


  1. I understand where you're coming from, but I'm not sure that I can agree entirely. I also know for a fact the sellers are generally way smarter than buyers, so they are not going to sell if they're not making a profit. Different parts of the world have different world views. For example, if you tip in Japan, it is considered very rude, but many westerners still insist on tipping there. I cannot understand this kind of behavior. When you're in a certain country, isn't it more respectful to treat them in the manner of their own country? Bartering is very much part of the culture of the Eastern world and not so much the Western world. I actually know some sellers that would be offended if you don't barter. I think there are plenty of ways that travellers / tourists will behave rudely in these types of scenarios, but there are always ways to be respectful and still barter like a local. Loved reading this and learning from your perspective though!

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Excellent to hear how you deal with things. It is best to respect different cultures. Bartering is OK, to a certain extent, it has to be done well-balanced (please read about it above). Bullying tradespeople is not that great. Respect is key, no matter what. Have a very lovely day.

  2. I will definitely be more thoughtful when I'm next at a foreign market. When I was in India I found it frustrating that the coconuts were 20 rupees to I do and but 60 rupees for British. I know in probability that I am more likely to have more money but charging 200% more based on our skin colour is a bit wrong.
    I will always pay what I deem fair but sometimes you know they are asking for a higher price than what it's worth based on you being foreign to them.
    I don't mind if I don't get it dirt cheap, I just want a fair price so everyone wins.

    Tea in the Tub

    1. Hi Helen, I reckon it does depend on your attitude, this is how I see the world. I never felt ripped off or anything, I put things in perspective.

      Really happy to hear that you "will definitely be more thoughtful when you are next at a foreign market" ... I take this as a compliment.

      Have a lovely day. From Berlin with love Dorothée


Greetings stranger. I always try to be myself and to be a tourist as often as I can. I would love to get in contact with lots of hard travelling tourists who love to be out and about as much as I do. I am looking forward to all your comments. Thanks so much in advance.