Why You Should Never Buy Souvenirs
Tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry and souvenir sales make up a significant portion of that pie. If you’ve traveled at all, you’ve likely noticed gift stores on almost every corner in high-traffic, touristy areas and smaller vendors in less-traveled areas that welcome out of town visitors. There are no limits to what you may find in a souvenir shop: stuffed animals, clothing, shot glasses, or even "souvenir water" from places like Niagara Falls. (See also: The Easiest Way to Save Money on Vacation)
Most of these items are pretty useless, but we feel good when we buy souvenirs because we’re certain our friends and family back home will love them. But if your friend isn’t an avid keychain collector and your kids are too old for stuffed animals, is it really worth paying all that extra money for the sake of bringing back souvenirs? Or, to take it a step further, should you buy souvenirs at all?
I’d say no.
There is little utility value to most souvenir items, and yet we still find ourselves buying impractical, overpriced trinkets out of some sense of obligation to the folks back home. Remember that tourism is a highly profit-driven industry and extreme markups on cheap items (sometimes in excess of 50-60% of the item’s actual value) are commonplace. Travel is expensive enough; why squander Euros, rupees, yuan, etc. on souvenirs that will inevitably find their way to the back of someone’s closet?
In 2010, I was returning to the US from a month in Europe with a group of other exchange students. One girl bought a snow globe for her parents on the way to the airport, as a last-minute, obligatory souvenir. Unfortunately, it was bigger than the allowable "tennis ball size" snow globe and airport security promptly confiscated it. Since 9/11, the number of limits on carry-on items has skyrocketed, particularly where liquid or "sharp" items are concerned. Souvenirs present another hassle to already-hectic air travel plans, and, sometimes, you could be encouraging illegal activities without even realizing it.
"If you come across people selling wildlife or wildlife products, be aware that those 'souvenirs' could very well be endangered species that have been poached from the wild and are being sold illegally," Senior Policy Officer for U.S. Government Relations Will Gartshore said in a World Wildlife Fund article. This is especially true of the fur and ivory industries, which are targeting tourists who may not be aware of these illegal activities. Why risk it? Not buying souvenirs at all is a simple way to avoid this problem.
Worker Exploitation and Scams
In addition to animal-related incidents, there have been reports of worker exploitation on the fringes of the tourism industry. Allegations of souvenir companies overworking their laborers and exposing them to toxic chemicals in the factories have come to light, and New Zealand’s tourism industry recently experienced scandals involving mislabeled and overpriced "Made in New Zealand" rugs (that were really made by cheap laborers in Peru). These are only a few instances amongst many, and as a frugal tourist, remember that getting a bargain on souvenirs may have some unforeseen consequences.
But if you don’t want to avoid buying souvenirs altogether, there are a few, frugal ways to bring a little something back for your friends and family. Photos and maps are inexpensive and probably last longer than a cheap keychain. You could also bring back coasters and pens from hotels you stayed at, and places like Disney World or Disneyland hand out freebies such as pins (for special occasions), character or princess stickers, and the Autopia "driver's license." If you're vacationing off the beaten path, consider taking home a pressed leaf (they make for great wall art) or a little jar of sand (though mind the rules about removing sea shells from the beach, especially if you're in an environmentally-sensitive area).
Saving the best for last, postcards are the true winners when it comes to souvenirs. They’re simple, personalized, and affordable (just pay for the postcard and postage). That way, your friends and family still get a piece of your vacation without cluttering their homes or overstretching your wallet like traditional souvenirs often do.
What about you? Do you like buying souvenirs or do you have something else you like to bring back home? Tell us in the comments below!
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