What are the comparative advantages of a region?

After travelling to multiple countries across the seven continents, it is surprising for me to state that I have just begun. There is so much more to experience. There are stunning landscapes, wild life, and cultures waiting for us. It is the same in almost every continent. While each continent is unique in its own way, there are also many common aspects. Excluding Antarctica, all continents have abundance of the same: food, landscapes, wildlife, cultures and activities such as festivals.

In global trade, countries trade with each other based on their comparative advantage. Current politics aside, it made sense for manufacturing to be based in China as opposed to the United States. The lower cost in China meant both companies and consumers got access to cheaper goods. Though global trade and global politics are quite complex, the underlying principle of comparative advantage of nations still holds. It got me thinking – Are there comparative advantages to nations and regions when it comes to travels?

Let us divide the world into specific regions. For the sake of this blog, I have divided the world in the following regions and dimensions of interests as detailed in the table below

The world looks like this:

Every region has a lot to offer in every dimension. The world is pretty much the same. If you go to Western Europe, you are exposed to amazing history, culture and food. It is no different from Western Africa, the Middle East or Central America. Though each region has a different take on each of the dimensions, you are not going to lose out on any dimension – evolution has provided abundance of natural wonders to each region and human civilizations have added their unique footprints to each part of the world.

But that is not how most people travel. Majority of the people in the world travel to

  1. South America: For the Food and Natural Ecosystems and bit of culture but not for wildlife
  2. South Asia: For the History, Culture and Food but not for natural ecosystems and wildlife
  3. Western Europe: For the History, Culture and Food but not for the wildlife
  4. Eastern Africa: For the Wildlife, Natural ecosystems and not for the cultures
  5. Antarctica: For the Wildlife only

You can clearly see the reasoning in tourist brochures within the mainstream market

  1. Egypt in North Africa emphasizes the pyramids
  2. Kenya and Tanzania emphasize the safaris
  3. India emphasizes history, food and culture
  4. Italy emphasizes history, art and food
  5. USA emphasizes natural ecosystems (National Parks) and European rooted cultures

Each country tries to play to its strength. India has stunning lakes and mountains but most people don’t really care about those. Nepal has stunning history and culture but most people care about the Himalayas. The Alps are quite important to France but most people are drawn to their history, food and wine.

It is quite apparent that countries and tourist boards recognise this – they don’t project everything in their countries, only the aspects that get tourists flocking. Of course they also mention the rest but that is not the core selling point.

If we have to take a step back and re-evaluate, the table above looks very different. I have created the next version of the table, based on my understanding of why people travel from my interactions and observations through the years of being on the road. You get similar perspective by reviewing the highlights section of a Lonely Planet guide to get a glimpse of the unique selling points for each country or region. At this point, it is important to emphasize that just because I think a region, quite generically, lacks something; it doesn’t mean it is not important. While Maachu Picchu is extremely important to Peru and the region and millions visit this site, from a region point of view, I have got the sense that if I exclude Maachu Picchu, then very few travel here for the historical cultures. Most travel to South America for the landscapes. My conclusions are not based off any deep analysis or scientific method but rather, as mentioned earlier, on my observations. The world map, as such, after the inclusion of my observations, looks as follows:

One important note: We live in a Euro-centric world. Most of Africa and Central Asia have yet to be travelled extensively by many. Most of the rest of the world have always attracted European and Western travellers and our perceptions of a place are based on their perspectives. There could be a day when we get a better all rounded view but as of today, any travel perspective tends to be dominated by the Western view.

With this principle in mind, it is quite clear why people travel. I have yet to find anyone who is interested in Kenya and Tanzania for something else other than the safaris. Very few only care about Argentina steak and wine experience over Patagonia. You go to Argentina for Patagonia and while you are there, you also indulge in Mendoza wines and juicy steaks.

Within each region, a country can have its own comparative advantages eg: Nepal for the Himalayas, Madagascar for its wildlife, Ecuador for its wildlife of the Galapagos and so on. I could go on.

The main conclusion from this blog post is that each country and each region has everything to offer, though many specialize in projecting a particular dimension as a comparative advantage over another country or region. While it might be easier to think of comparative advantages of a place, it is always better to experience all dimensions that are on offer provided you have the capacity and resources to do so.

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