The Little Things Matter: A Microeconomic Travel Guide

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I sometimes wish the market supplied “travel guides as if microeconomics really mattered.” Most guides outline the major sights and the best hotels, but what about the little things that make up so much of the value of a trip? Here’s my handy introduction to the micro side of travel, based on my recent 10-day stay in Ethiopia. You should consider investigating these same factors before choosing a destination:

How are the sidewalks?

I enjoy walking around cities, but it’s not just the quality of the architecture or the vitality of the street life that matter. The quality of the sidewalks is a central consideration, especially in emerging economies. What good are the sights if you are looking down all the time to avoid a slip or a broken ankle because of gaping holes? Sometimes major thoroughfares have no sidewalks at all.

I am happy to report that in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, the quality of the sidewalks and street paths is high enough to sustain productive walking with your head held high. Most of the time. B, and B+ outside the capital.

How is the local coffee?

My guide and driver took me to a small village on the outskirts of the ancient city of Lalibela. They made me coffee from scratch, using a local bean and frying it over an open fire right before my eyes. The taste was strong, bitter and wonderfully complex. A+ for this one, noting that Ethiopia is the original home of the coffee bean.

What kind of pollution?

Except for carbon emissions, poorer countries are usually more polluted than wealthier countries. But what kind of pollution do you wish to avoid? For the traveler, the worst kinds of pollution are in the air, as that makes it hard to stay outside all day. During some of my trips to eastern China, the air pollution was so bad I could barely see across the street or take a clean breath.

Ethiopia is mostly unpolluted in this regard, though Addis Ababa accumulates some automobile exhaust. There are few places in the world better for finding clear vistas than the north of the country. Ethiopia does have a more serious problem with water pollution, but that won’t much affect you as a tourist.

Overall the city is in a touristic “sweet spot,” where it is developed enough to offer good services, such as restaurants and hotels and shops, but not so large and overwhelming as to be unpleasant and overcrowded (see: Delhi). I say A-, grading on a curve.

For other locations in this same travel sweet spot, I’ll nominate Bolivia and Yunnan province in southwestern China.

What kind of crime?

Don’t be put off by violent conflict in distant provinces (Ethiopia is almost twice the size of Texas), or by decades-old stories of civil war and famine. It’s street crime you care about, and Addis Ababa is generally secure. It’s common to see women walking alone at night. The main tourist sites in Ethiopia seem to be remarkably safe, and also free of pushy hawkers for the most part. I’ll give Ethiopia an A- on this one, noting that I am more worried about my following stay in Paris. Two other “safer than you might think” locales are Colombia and Macedonia.

What are the taxis like?

Most of the drivers in Addis speak decent English, and they play good music — often classic Ethiopian jazz — while driving you around. It has become standard to mock the citation of tax drivers, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is known to do. I say we can learn this from taxi drivers: If they even have a chance of biasing your impressions by speaking English to you, that means the country is doing something right with education and self-education. Addis drivers get an A-. It’s harder to find an English-speaking cabbie in Mumbai.

Do you have conversational access to varying classes of society?

Because of native friendliness, the paucity of other tourists and enough fluency in English, I give Ethiopia an A- here. Without pre-existing personal contacts, this access to both rich and poor can be tougher to pull off in much of Latin America, but Ethiopia really is welcoming.

What is the lowest grade I give Ethiopia on the little things? Well, the country seems to have hardly any good chocolate ice cream (vanilla is the wiser choice here), so the chocolate grade is a D.

Oh, and did I mention that Ethiopia has plenty of perfect weather and some of world’s most splendid old churches and monasteries?

Once you’ve seen those, go back to this list and choose your next destination.

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