How to Deal with Persistent Beach Hawkers
Check out any travel site and look at reviews of beaches in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia or the Philippines, and a common headline will be something along the lines of “Great beach but the pesky hawkers drove me crazy!”
And check out any travel forum talking about Southeast or South Asian beaches, and one of the most frequent questions will be “How do I get rid of annoying beach hawkers?”
Yes, hawkers can be annoying and many will not take no for an answer. So how do you get them to go away and stay away? Here are some tips based on my personal experience from dealing with beach hawkers in all of those countries.
Firstly let’s remember that they are there because they are trying to make a living. They are not there to deliberately annoy you. They are human beings trying to earn some money. Most will have no other source of income and have families to support. So treat them with respect. Swearing at them achieves nothing.
Should I buy from them?
Most of them will be selling hats, sunglasses, foodstuffs, drinks, sarongs, souvenirs, massages or boat trips. In Thailand and Indonesia a few will be asking for donations to fake orphanages. In Sri Lanka some will bring snakes onto the beach and ask for money for a snake show or for photographs with the snakes.
If you don’t already have a hat or sunglasses, then it’s going to be almost impossible to keep them away from you. Even if you feel you don’t need a hat or sunglasses (wise to have though in tropical countries) then it’s a good move to bring a hat and sunglasses with you, and place them where they can be seen if you are not wearing them.
If you don’t already have a hat, then why not buy one from one of the vendors? You’ll be doing both yourself and them a favour. But check out prices in the local shops before you go down to the beach, so you have an idea of what is a fair price to pay. You can bargain – and that’s expected – but don’t try to beat them down to a price from which they can’t make a profit. Their buying price would probably have been around 40 percent below the retail price in the shops, so maybe target a price that gives you about a 20 percent saving.
The quality of the hats sold on most beaches in Asia is not much different to those in the shops, and you probably won’t be taking it home with you, so worrying about quality should not be an issue when it comes to buying hats.
Sunglasses are different. It’s not good for the eyes to be wearing cheap quality sunglasses. Most of those sold on Asian beaches are made in China and have very poor quality lenses that scratch easily.
There are exceptions to that though. About three years ago I bought a pair of polarising sunglasses on a beach in Puerto Galera, Philippines. They were very lightweight and comfortable to wear, and the price was less than half what I had previously paid for sunglasses. I am still wearing them today.
But in the main, it’s best to bring your own sunglasses to the beach and not buy them from beach hawkers unless you are in a location where you need them, and there are no stores nearby where you can buy a better quality pair.
As far as food is concerned, my advice is to avoid buying all cooked foodstuffs that hawkers bring to the beach because you have no idea whether the food has been prepared in hygienic circumstances. Snacks in sealed packets are fine of course, as are drinks in unopened bottles and cans. But never buy drinks that are served from large containers into paper or plastic cups – especially those with ice.
The one exception to that is coconut water – provided the coconut is opened with a clean machete in front of you, and you have a clean drinking receptacle into which to pour the coconut water. Do not accept plastic straws from the vendor. They are not only bad for the environment, but it is possible that they may have already been used and washed with contaminated water.
As an aside, if you want your coconut water chilled (it’s usually quite warm if it’s been carried around the beach all day) bring ice from the hotel in an icebox. Don’t accept ice from the vendor. Coconut water is the best liquid to drink to rehydrate in the tropics -- and it is sterile if fresh from the nut – but it’s much more refreshing if chilled.
As far as souvenirs and other items are concerned, that’s up to you whether they have anything that you might immediately need. Most of the souvenirs are tacky items that I wouldn’t waste money on, but sometimes you might need an extra towel or a pouch to protect your phone from sand and saltwater.
How to get them to go away
Once you’ve bought what you need (if anything) the big question is how to get them to stay away, because they won’t necessarily leave you alone just because you’ve bought something. In fact, it often works the other way. Buy one item from one vendor, and within minutes there will be three or four more crowding around trying to sell you something else.
And the one thing that you should NEVER say to them is “Later maybe” or “I’ll think about it”. If you do that, they will be checking back every half hour to see if you have decided to buy something from them. They won’t leave you alone until you leave the beach.
The strategy that I have found works best for seniors is to play the poor man card. If the hawker can speak reasonable English, tell then you are an old age pensioner and you don’t have much money to spend. If they don’t speak good English, then try something like “Me old, no money no more!” and make a sad face and gesture with empty upturned hands.
Of course, if you are wearing designer clothes, Ray-Ban sunglasses and a Rolex watch, that’s not going to work. But it’s not a good idea to wear those to the beach anyway because anyone decked out that way is only going to be a magnet for beach hawkers.
What doesn’t work is telling the vendors that you didn’t bring any money to the beach – it was back in the hotel. That only results in them continuing to pressure you to buy something, and then promising to wait until you get the money from your room.
Even worse is suggesting you have no money until you go to the ATM later in the day. Many travellers have tried that, only to find hawkers following them when they did eventually decide to go to the ATM.
If the poor man strategy doesn’t work, then the best option is to just shake your head and smile. You may need to keep doing that for a while, but eventually most hawkers will give up when they see you are not buying anything from anyone.
If that still doesn’t work, then the last resort is to pretend to be asleep or bury your head in a book and just ignore them and make no eye contact. There is no point in getting angry with them because you will only upset yourself more than you will upset them.
Enjoy the beach massages
Massages are different – at least for me. I love to have a beach massage, and most are so cheap I’m happy to have one every day if I have time. Usually if you’ve had one early in the day, the other hawkers will know about it, and you won’t get bothered again until the next day.
The vendors of boat trips are another story. They can be the most persistent of all beach hawkers, because they are just operating on commission. If they get the slightest hint that you might be interested to take a boat trip, then most will not leave you alone. So do not ask for the price out of curiosity or for any details of what they are offering.
If you are interested to take a boat trip, find out what is available through a licensed travel agent. They will have arrangements with the safest boat operators. It is true that booking that way will cost more, but when you’ve reached your senior years, safety is more important than price.
The commission agents prowling the beaches are looking for clients for locals with boats who will be mostly unlicensed. If you are a young backpacker and a good swimmer, it’s often a way to save money, but it’s not a good way for seniors to book a boat trip.
If a vendor with a basket of snakes approaches you, and you are a woman, just scream at the top of your voice. That is a surefire way to make them go away. If you are a man, you might try the same if it won’t cause too much embarrassment!
And I strongly suggest that you ask vendors with monkeys to keep their distance. Whilst a photo with a monkey might look cute for a post to your Facebook page, if you are bitten you’ll need to immediately head to a hospital for a painful rabies vaccination. It’s not worth the risk.
Local government regulations
In many parts of Asia, local and regional governments have attempted to introduce regulations to keep hawkers off the beaches or at least regulate them in some way. Some have been successful but many have not.
One success story was as far back as 2008, when Sri Lanka’s Responsible Tourism Partnership organised the beach hawkers working around Beruwala Beach into small cooperatives and gave them stalls from which they could operate.
Now the beachgoers go to the beach hawkers (renamed ‘beach operators’ for the purpose of the venture) at their stalls instead of being hassled on the beach. That was a win-win situation for everyone.
More recently, Thailand’s military government banned hawkers from the beaches at Phuket completely, but that didn’t go down well with foreign tourists who had gone there expecting foot massages and drinks brought to them on the beach.
On the other side of the peninsula at Hua Hin beach, authorities imposed a quota on the number of hawkers and masseurs allowed on the beach, and introduced uniforms and licences to make it easy to identify those who shouldn’t be there.
In Vietnam many visitors have a love-hate relationship with the beach hawkers. Some love the cheap seafood on offer (despite my earlier health warning!) whilst others claim they are the most aggressive beach hawkers in Asia, surpassing even those in Goa for persistence. Most of those in both Vietnam and Indonesia are selling souvenirs and trinkets at prices way above what they can be bought for in the local market.
However, it’s unlikely that the hawkers in any country could be more aggressive than those on many of the beaches in Goa, India. Not only does Goa have a problem with hawkers, but also with beggars. Goa’s government and local authorities have been trying the regulate the beach hawkers and beggars for more than a decade – even to the point of placing soldiers on the beaches to keep them away – but they keep coming back.
In the Philippines many barangays have introduced regulations banning hawkers from their beaches, but the regulations are rarely policed, and if they are, the fines imposed are not large enough to discourage the hawkers from returning the next day. It is only when their goods are seized or their ice-cream cart confiscated do they take any notice.
Beach hawkers are not going to go away in any part of Asia any time soon. They have been part of the beach scene here for many decades and, in developing countries at least, they will be here for a long time to come. So it’s best to learn to live with them and not let them be a cause of a rise in blood pressure!
Header image: Tania Dimas