Travel and tourism is one of the world’s largest industries and when people are on trips, they often spend money more freely on things they would never buy at home. Behavior is hugely influenced by context and the inherently short-term nature of trips loosens wallets. It’s the same impulse that drives young revelers at music festivals to buy floppy fluoro hats that will never be worn again.
This plows vast amounts of money into local economies all over the world. According the U.S. Travel Association, residential and international travelers spend $2 billion a day in the USA–that’s $1.4 million every minute. This money is also a huge driver of economic growth in developing nations, often rich in ancient history but lacking in modern industry. This is what leads to the persistent presence of hawkers. And they certainly can be persistent.
Listed in independent travel guides under “Annoyances,” hawkers are aggressive salesmen who advertise their wares to passing foreigners by shouting. The confluence of significant disparities in the value of currencies and the cost of living, the predictability of travelers’ appearances at stations and tourist areas, and high population densities, means that anyone who is not clearly a local will rapidly become accustomed to being shouted at. A lot. All the time. Competition is fierce and it’s only compounded by the dramatic negotiability of prices. Price fixing increasingly occurs among local vendors to ensure tourists can’t pay local prices. Taxi drivers mount trains as they approach stations to get to potential customers first. Making eye contact, even from some distance, with a beach hawker can lead to a prolonged discussion about how buying a crossbow or ornamental knife is neither desirable nor really very practical for an international tourist.
Obviously tourists like to buy souvenirs to remind them of the good times they had and spend money to help support local economies. But en masse the impact of this aggressive competition works against the vendors, as initially polite refusals give way to automatic no-thank-yous. Tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous motorized three wheeler taxis found in many emerging nations, are a convenient and cheap way to get around, but tuk-tuk drivers are among the most vocal hawkers, shouting “Tuk-tuk?” at every passing foreigner. In heavily touristed areas you can be offered a tuk-tuk dozens of times along a single street, sometimes while already in a tuk-tuk. This has led the endlessly enterprising local merchandisers to produce T-shirts that say “No tuk-tuk today, no tuk-tuk tomorrow,” which are then themselves hawked along the street.
Travelers from the hyper-capitalist postindustrial nations are inevitably forced to comment and cope with this seemingly endless onslaught of commercial exhortations. Both a feature and bug, an economic celebration and distortion, opportunity and annoyance. It seems so very different to the relative lack of intrusion at home.
However, as with most things one encounters in seemingly foreign lands, that initially seem so different, there is usually an anthropological analog. We are more the same than we are different. The difference is simply one of scale. Hawking is hugely inefficient and energy intensive–the vendor is also the advertisement. Advertising in developed markets is all about scale. The cacophony of shouting has been replaced by the blinking lights of Times Square. Endlessly quoted but rarely sourced studies suggest the average American “consumer” is exposed to approximately 5,000 commercial messages every day across various media. Where commercial media is more scarce and commerce more independently operated, you get shouting instead. But even the busiest street in Thailand can’t sustain 5,000 tuk-tuk drivers.
In the Minority Report version of the future, digital billboards marry the scale of advertising with the personalized intrusions of hawking, but it doesn’t need to be that way. One of the instructive things about traveling to different countries at different stages of economic and technological development is seeing how they embrace and utilize technologies and cultural ideas differently. Mobile phone credits are a stable and significant currency in certain African countries. The smallest restaurant in Cambodia will offer free Wi-Fi to entice in customers. Consumer-packaged-goods brands have established supply chains into developing markets and with them comes advertising in its more familiar form. As hawking becomes ineffective, or even outlawed, advertising innovations may emerge in these markets that help all of us avoid the aggressive shouting billboard.