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GP30Oct: Falling Off the Map

Falling off the Map.  Perhaps the best and certainly the most original travel writer of our day is Pico Iyer.  Published in 1993, his Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World took us to such out-of-the-way spots as North Korea, Bhutan, and Paraguay, not the usual fare of even the more adventurous denizens of our planet.  “Lonely Places, then, are the places that are not on international wavelengths, do not know how to carry themselves, are lost when it comes to visitors.”  We think Iyer is not only a fine writer, but also a prophetic traveler who sees tomorrow in unseen places.   It’s in some of these spots, which run-of-the-mill mortals conspicuously ignore, that we occasionally discover local pioneers who are inventing the future.

Countries at the Margin.  It’s self evident to those not afflicted by denial that the economies of all the major countries of the world are severely troubled, with perhaps the single exception of China, which still manages to grind out extraordinary growth somewhere in the 6-8% range.  As importantly, the leading countries are all caught up in political deadlock, unable to advance agendas that will take them into the 21st century.  This political impasse we suspect has as much to do with our present economic distress as the lack of commercial vitality evidenced by captains of industry.  Somehow this reminds us that President Clinton talked up the 21st century in his convention speeches but that his political success stemmed so much from his ability to cling to the 20th, as he sensed that he was not dealing with a country that wanted to move on.  At any rate, the gridlock is pervasive and acute.

The interesting countries--post Cold War--are little giants who have advanced while we weren't looking.  In 2001, they often showed handsome growth rates of better than 3% (as in Ireland, Luxembourg, Greece, Ireland, Ecuador, South Korea, and Qatar) and sometimes had striking GNPs per capita (as in Finland, Iceland, South Korea, Australia, and Qatar).

This vibrant economic activity suggests that the action has shifted from the name-brand countries, post 2000, to the lesser known upstarts.  Incidentally, this ascendance of the new kid on the block is seen as well in the world of commerce, where outsider brands ranging from budget airlines (i.e. Southwest, JetBlue, Ryan, and Easyjet) to newish alcoholic drinks (i.e. Corona, Grey Goose, and Christiana) are toppling the kings of the hill.  Systems of all sorts have been so destabilized that new competitors can push to the head of the line and change the rules of the game.

Iceland.  Certain off-the-map countries are getting terribly interesting and compel our attention because they are inventing the future while the big countries are mired in the past.  Iceland may still be very dependent on fish for the bulk of its exports, but it’s also active in biotechnology, with the gene pool of its whole population having been mapped and with the large prospect of health and drug discoveries.  70% of its people are on the Internet, 80% of its population has mobile phones, and everyone is literate.  It is active in geothermal power.  A while back, one of the smartest investors in the U.S., who often makes currency bets, began his round-the-world journey in Iceland.  We can understand why.  This country has seriously leveraged its homogeneity.

Finland.  The Finns have taken hits in the current recession, but their Nokia stays on top of the world cellular market.  Like many Finnish firms, it started a long time ago as something else altogether, then sold off its traditional businesses and completely remade itself into a telecommunications company.  This capacity of old enterprises to completely reinvent themselves may be a Finnish national trait, for they are a creative lot.  As Finns will remark to you, “We invent it, and then the Swedes sell it,” alluding, for instance, to the sauna, which started Finnish and is billed as Swedish.  Finland has a remarkable design capacity, exhibited in its wares and architecture, that gives it terrific impact beyond its shores.  High literacy coupled with government institutions that are intensely supportive of commercial activity has earned this nation high marks with those who rate global competitiveness. 

Qatar.  Right beside Saudi Arabia, it is mighty different.  First off, it has a vibrant economy, with a 5.6% growth rate in 2001, while the Saudis have slowed under the weight of a feudal, sort-of-theocratic government.  In 1995, it got a new 45-year old monarch who established a legislature, opened the Al Jazeera satellite-TV station, and even permitted a Christian church to be built.  More importantly, women can now vote and run for office.  Women’s rights constitutes the “tipping point” in Arab society, and is the means by which it can enter modernity and leave its somnolent past behind.  Here women are not invisible, and since they constitute the majority of voters, they will eventually transform this country and the nations around it.

Greece.  Economic growth has been pushing 4% a year.  Who would have thought this could ever happen to this sick man.  But tensions have simmered down in the Balkans, and relations with the Turks are even relatively placid.  Now part of the Euro Zone, its growth rate is twice the European Union average.  With tourism accounting for 15% of the economy, we can hardly claim that this is one of Iyer’s Lonely Places, but now visitors will go much further afield as the economy opens up parts of the country where travelers formerly did not adventure.  Interestingly, the Olympics are coming in 2004, a talisman--as in China--that Greece is spreading its commercial wings.  Equipped with a poor educational system and traditions that favor the aging, the young people have gone abroad in vast numbers to study, and they will surely remake the country as they return in force.  Of course, a worry is that there are simply not enough young people; with low fertility rates, the population is getting as old and decrepit as Greek monuments (in fact, more so, since many of the monuments have been restored).  Just like Ireland, Greece is a shining example of the leavening effects of the European Union.  But, as significantly, it has benefited mightily from its large immigrant community, perhaps 10% of the population, which probably has added 1% to the economic growth rate as well as helping Greece forge productive links outside its borders, setting aside some of yesterday’s antagonisms.

Looking for Growth in All the New Places.  If economic growth, innovation, relative political stability, and a thirst for progress are facets of life in asymptotic, off-the-chart kind of places, then companies and investors must be a bit more reflective about where they plant the flag next.  Pollo Campero, a Guatemalan chicken chain, first spread throughout Central America and then came to the United States.  But next, as you will read on the Global Province in coming weeks, it is targeting Poland, Portugal, and Spain, not going for Europe’s biggest economies.  It’s not self evident where you put your next office, factory, or retail outlet, because all the usual major suspects are swimming in and out of recession and offer mixed prospects for new businesses.  Pico Iyer was right in the 90s to look at all the places people avoided, because this decade has seen the mighty fall, and the obscure flowering.

Best This Week.  Oh, to be in Giverny.  If you have wanderlust, we are recommending you go to offbeat places, the ones that are a bit isolated from the world’s conflicts and are often somewhat immune to the viruses sweeping through the global economy.  Perhaps, too, when you do go to the nameplate countries, you should speed through the capital and head to the provinces.

In France, this might just mean going to Giverny.  We thought about this recently when we came on www.giverny.org., a wonderful website that leads you into Monet’s idlyllic surroundings.  Here Monet created art that not only charged up a 19th-century creative moment, but also, in his later work, set the stage for abstraction and other tendencies of the 20th.  We’ll  be talking more about Giverny.org on Global Province in the future, claiming that it should be instructive to civic boosters the world over who need to use  similar magic to trumpet their own regions. 

Suffice it to say, this site takes you into the sort of  landscape that made Impressionism flourish.  Even American painters flocked there (and they are mentioned on the website) and nurtured an American Impressionism, which is now little remarked on in the United States even though we know collectors of their very pleasant work.  To Giverny you should go to learn how a different theory of light led to such radiant paintings, which never fail to illuminate even the dreariest of museums. 

Out in the provinces, in marginal countries well away from global cities, you will not only find 21st century innovation and surprising economic growth, but you will also discover a coherent life style and even some freedom from the anxieties that pollute the mainstream world.  Who says escapism isn't a better way to go?  Discover, says the travel brochure we will write someday, Iceland’s homogeneity, Finland’s industrial re-inventiveness, Qatar’s emancipated women, Greece’s immigrant power, and Giverny’s warming Impressionism.

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