We all love scoring a good deal. This holds true when planning travel to many popular dive destinations as well, such as Thailand and the Philippines. Diving is an expensive sport, with course fees, equipment purchases and rental, insurance and travel expenses. Add to this the wide discrepancy in prices between different dive centers and different locations, and it’s easy to feel like higher-priced establishments are taking advantage of unsuspecting tourists. But are bargain dive courses really a bargain? The answer is an unequivocal “sometimes, but sometimes not.” Here we’ll explain what to look for when it comes to choosing where to do your training — and what to spend.
Bargain dive courses
Any dive-professional forum search will unearth a number of heated discussions about pricing in the dive industry. Ask any dive professional and they will tell you that the constant battle for lower prices is de-valuing the dive industry in several ways.
Dive centers that offer courses at drastically discounted prices still have the same operating costs as their higher-priced counterparts. They must make up the money that they’re losing by offering lower-priced courses somehow.
For some centers, this means that they must certify more students per month in order to attain the same income. This results in a kind of diving-factory mentality that churns out new students assembly-line style. Students are pushed through, and as long as they meet the qualifying requirements, they get certified. These centers offer little room for deviation from schedules, and extra time in the water for those who need it is not always possible. There is little focus on mastery or on certifying students comfortable enough to go diving alone with a buddy, independent of an instructor or divemaster.
Often these centers place large groups of students with one instructor, which results in a large portion of the dive spent watching and waiting for other students to perform their skills. Smaller groups enable students to spend more time mastering their skills.
Bigger groups can mean less personalization
Lower-priced dive centers also tend to take larger groups of fun divers on guided dives — again to make up for lost revenue. While certified divers don’t need a dive guide, diving in larger groups tends to become messy as the group splits up or everyone crowds around the guide to see the little nudibranch that he is pointing out. Shops that charge higher prices can employ more staff and offer smaller groups, which means you will be able to see everything the dive guide points out without worrying that your mask will be knocked off as someone elbows you out of the way.
If you do find a less-expensive dive center that only takes small groups of divers, consider that they still have the same expenses as more expensive centers — think agency fees, equipment maintenance, electricity for filling tanks, fuel for the boat, staff salaries. For them to make a profit, or just break even, they must cut expenses somewhere, which could be in the quality of their equipment or, sometimes, their staff’s salaries.
Why is diving expensive in otherwise affordable countries?
Why is diving so expensive in countries where everything else is cheap? Consider this: You live in Europe or the States and need a piece of equipment for your next dive trip. No problem — you get in your car, drive 20 minutes to your local dive shop and walk out with whatever you needed a short while later. Some of the world’s best diving, however, is on remote, tropical islands or in developing countries. These places usually don’t have equipment suppliers nearby, unless it’s more touristy or established for diving. Gear and supplies must come from either the mainland, a larger island, or even a different country. Factor in the time and effort it takes to get equipment to your paradise location, and it all adds up.
Beside the gear there is the issue of staff salaries, as mentioned above. Good instructors add value to a dive center and will offer you the best training and service. These instructors know their worth and ask for it. ‘Living the dream’ is wonderful until you realize that you only earn enough to have one decent meal a day after paying rent, replacing equipment, paying for visas and work permits, and of course the flights to get there. Dive centers that pay their staff well see them as an investment and often have their pick of the cream of the crop.
Deciding on a dive center
Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with choosing bargain dive courses, keep in mind the factors above. Don’t look only for the cheapest price, but also ask about the dive guide-to-customer ratio. Before you take a course speak to the instructor if possible to see if it is a good fit for you. And remember that while dive professionals might be living the dream, they also must pay the bills. Your contribution to the dive industry helps them offer better service, set higher standards and create a safer experience for everyone.