Black Market Travel!


Most younger voyagers have missed out on a type of travel that is rapidly disappearing. I'll call it black market travel. This is made possible by controlled economies, where the government limits imports of desirable goods from abroad, or where the currency exchange rate doesn't reflect reality. My first experience of this was when I was 13 years old, traveling in Yugoslavia with my family. Someone asked for payment in dollars, and I happened to have some in my wallet. When I pulled out a $10 bill, an old man walking by almost fainted at the sight. At the time, I had no idea why. Years later I learned the ins-and-outs of black market currency exchange when I traveled in Soviet-block Poland. Western currency was so desirable that if you exchanged it with a local instead of in a bank, you got 10 times the "official" rate. Imagine if you could walk into any store or restaurant and pay 10% of the asking price. Even a backpacking student can live like a king.

In Burma (now Myanmar), the government tried to make tourists account for there travel by turning in a form when they left that listed all their government approved currency exchanges. Most travelers with any smarts had heard through the grapevine that there was really no enforcement, so when I showed up at passport control and submitted a form with only one small transaction listed, the border agent pointed this out to me and scowled. I shrugged sheepishly, and he waved me through with a grunt. Needless to say, that was a very inexpensive trip.

In India, as I've mentioned in a previous post on the globalization of food, the import of foreign goods was extremely limited by the government. This linked back to Gandhi's push for self-sufficiency. It was common knowledge in those days that before you boarded your flight to India, you should buy scotch and cigarettes at the duty-free. Not long after you arrived in India, someone would come up to you and offer to buy them off you for twice what you'd paid. Not a fortune, but a nice supplement for those who travel on the cheap.

It may have crossed your mind by now that there is a down side to black market travel. Not just the danger of breaking the law, but the fact that you're taking advantage of a system based on the suffering of others. In Poland, there were "dollar stores" where you could buy things not available in other stores. Remember that 10% the black market tourist paid? That means that the Polish citizen who purchased black market dollars was paying 1000% to buy things in the dollar stores!

Last year I read about a scam in Venezuela, a current controlled economy. This wasn't by foreigners, but by Venezuelans (no one knows how to work a system better than someone who grows up in a controlled economy!). The government's official rate is about 1/7 the black market rate. Venezuelans with a valid international airline ticket can purchase up to $3000 at this government subsidized rate for their travels abroad. Hmmm. Ok. I'll buy a cheap international flight, then get those $3000 at the controlled rate and sell them on the black market. I won't get on the flight. Sure, I'll lose the price of the flight, buy my $3000 just turned into $21,000!

Not surprisingly, flights from Venezuela are sold out months in advance, but they leave half empty. Seems like you might get a great deal flying standby!

Here's and article on this crazy scam. Reuters Article on Venezuela

By Kevin O'Neill


  • Created on .
 goabroad logo posner logo