A microeconomic guide to travel, including Ethiopia

That is my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opener:

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.

There is much more at the link, definitely recommended.


'but what about the little things that make up so much of the value of a trip'

Those are the things that cannot be listed. Serendipity is not available for purchase, anywhere.

Keep up the good work Brother Cowen! Too many MR commenters seem to hate Africa / black people and that's a low down shame. Proof to me that many so-called liberterians/classic liberals/conservatives are all a bunch of closet racists. Ethiopia is a true rising star.

Impressive how fast you manage to move from "some" to "many" to "all". It reminds of the type of historian who, as David Hackett Fischer joked, "write ‘always’ for ‘sometimes’, and ‘sometimes’ for ‘occasionally’, ‘occasionally’ for ‘rarely’, and ‘rarely’ for ‘once’” (Historians' Fallacies, 1970:270-271).

He only said "too many" and "many". The "all" modified the "many". In other words, try not to be such a snowflake.

"In other words, try not to be such a snowflake."

-1, Complaining about people being snowflakes when they make a legitimate point has become the new snowflake standard.

-1, calling illegitimate points legitimate is an all too venerable technique

I found his point legitimate. The original poster made a blanket statement about a group without any supporting evidence. ABS Bosch pushed back on it, without being rude or name calling. Nor was his tone whiny.

Then you responded with pedantry followed up with name calling.

The original comment is correct - the majority of readers of this blog are cuckolds who hate black people because they can't compete with the BBD. They come here as an escape for their constant cuckold humiliation.

"In other words, try not to be such a snowflake."

Next time you try to engage someone in a battle of wits, at least pretend that you're armed.

Last time I heard that one I laughed so hard I fell off my dinosaur.

I'm sorry to hear about your accident; clearly the fall caused some serious brain damage.

Oh yeah? Well I'm rubber and you're glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!

Hahahahah oh the cuckolds of MR are squabbling again! Hahaha!

To be fair:

+1 to msgkings for the funnier line.

Yes, fair is fair, it was a pretty good line.

Thanks to both of you but I was going for hacky and stale LOL

I get the impression Ethiopians aren't big fans of "Africa" and "Africans" either.

All very good points. The lack of details like this make travel experiences so unpredictable. For whatever reason, details on the quality of restaurants is almost always easily available and widely discussed online, but things like sidewalks are entirely neglected. No matter how nice the sights are, if you are stuck walking along congested roads, you are not going to have a pleasant trip.

I'm an early riser and for many years a daily runner. When I was a frequent business traveler and visited many cities, I would rise early and take a run. NYC, SF, DC, Chicago, Charleston, Miami, New Orleans, you name the city, I ran through it. It was a great way to get the lay of the land, to see a large area in a relatively short time (relative to walking), to identify places I would return to later for a closer look. New Orleans, for example I would run not only through the French Quarter but all the way to and through the Garden District. Did I have a favorite? Not really. Sure, DC was the easiest, with all those open spaces, but SF, though difficult (all those hills), produced the most interesting micro tour and places to return to later. I gave up running years ago (after 30 plus years my body needed a rest) and now ride a bike, the latter not easy to take along on trips as compared to a pair of running shorts and shoes stuffed in my bag.

I should have emphasized that I would run early (real early) before traffic so I could run in the street if that was the best way to cover a long distance while spotting the most places to return to later. Also, running in the street was the safest place to run.

Business operating hours. If I'm travelling somewhere far, I want to make the most of every waking hour. If museums close on Monday and Tuesday, restaurants shut down between lunch and dinnet, and bars close at 10. Well, you end up with a lot of missed opportunities.

Did any tourists in Ethiopia seem to suffer from the altitude?

When I was in Cuzco, Peru on a tour, a middle-aged couple had to fly down to Lima after one very bad night at 11,000 feet.

I used to be pretty impervious to altitude up to the top of Mt. Whitney (14,500 feet), but that was a long, long time ago.

That's a good point. When I was a skier, there were some places I would not go because the location of the ski resort (as opposed to the ski mountain) were at an elevation that, after a few days, I would suffer altitude sickness. To be clear, it was the high elevation of the resort not the mountain that caused me problems (because one never went below the elevation of the resort). Thus, visiting a city that is at a very high elevation could create altitude sickness problems. An aside, as with flying, don't drink alcohol when staying at a high elevation: among other things, the combination of the altitude and the alcohol dehydrates. Of course, that's not an issue with Cowen.

The only place I've ever witnessed somebody beset with 'real' altitude sickness in Ethiopia is in the Simien National Park (where Mount Dashen culminates at 4533m).

That said, many people experience symptoms such a shortness of breath...etc. even in Addis Ababa (1900-2800).

We have sidewalks in Brazil, great sidewalks, but who cares??

Yeah but they're always covered in blood.

It is not even remotely true! I am looking at a sidewalk now. It is remarkable free of blood.


Well sure, it is remarkable to find a Brazilian sidewalk free of blood. Congratulations on your good fortune!

No, it is not. I have found many. Most sidewalks in Brazil are free from blood.

This is true, since the figure is 60% blood-free sidewalks.

Barely any Brazilian sidewalk has blood on it. I can see four sidewalks from my window. None is covered with blood.

I would highly recommend watching a football game in each new country you visit. On a superficial level, every football game is the same, as they follow the same rules. However, during the game you will learn more about that country's health and safety laws, snack foods, attitudes to women, swearing, alcohol consumption, level of policing, and many more topics than you would in any other ninety minutes.

The UK-based Bradt guides tend to provide much more details on the little things by giving much more leeway to authors. The content of a typical guide will be 50 pc. on non-site related details, 30 pc. on sites/destinations and maps and 20 pc. on services.

The author of the guide for Dominica actually devised a complex nomenclature to give you a proper idea of what to expect on hikes for instance. As in: Morne Micotrin. T: 3H; R: 0; E: 4; D: 3; Rating = 6.3 H; Guide highly recommended, though few know it — which means: terrain (T) is challenging (3) with hazards (H), no (0) river crossings (R), severe (4) elevation (E), duration (D) is 4–6 hours (3).

Now that's meaningful, and better than just grading from A to E!

I often thought about writing a proper tourist guide to a small country simply for the sake of moving away from checklist-based tourism to insight-driven tourism. Any other ideas?

Btw @Thiago, maybe you could contribute some of your expertise on how you would rate the level of violence of destinations in a South-American context? I would definitely be more adventurous if properly informed ;)

How about something along the lines of:
Fav. V... C..., I: 2/4, T: 4/5, A: 4/4, F: 1/5, H: 4, don't forget your mugging money!
... Or in other terms: when with trustworthy insiders (I) you can proceed with moderate caution during the day (2) and with utmost prudence after nightfall (4); a lone, visible tourist (T) should always proceed with great caution during the day (4) and under no circumstance try to stay around alone at night (5); violent assault (A) is extremely common, night and day (4); women may be cat-called or otherwise bothered during the day (1); and risk being raped after nightfall (5).

Violence varies widly inside the same country. Colombia, for instance, had places threatened night and day by left-wing terrorists and right-wing militiamen and more calm places. My neighborhood in Brazil is very sedated, but homicides are very common in the Indian reserves and so far and so on. My mother's hometown experienced no homicides at all in 2017.

Jest aside, that's exactly my point. Countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Colombia have poor reputations in terms of violence although it would be very easy to visit a huge part of these countries while taking no particular personal risk because the violence is actually limited in both type and location. For instance, high homicide rates in most Amazonian settlements seem to be driven by land disputes and/or domestic violence. That wouldn't intimidate nearly as much as even the safest neighbourhood in Caracas.

"For instance, high homicide rates in most Amazonian settlements seem to be driven by land disputes and/or domestic violence."

To be fair, people fighting for land do not cate particularly for colateral damage. But, yes, it is mostly a localized issue without much repercussions for the wider society. Same for much of violence in Rio de Janeiro City victims: cops, drug dealers and people living in contested areas.

Unfortunalely, some people prefer to visit Donkeyville instead of Brazil's parks, libraries, universities, industries, banks, cyclotrons and nuclear plants.

The Bradt Guide to Ethiopia is by a long margin the best general guide in English to Ethiopia.

It's the only book that I've bought (so far) for planning a possible trip to Ethiopia.

I have not yet looked at the Lonely Planet or other guides to Ethiopia; the Bradt Guides are always aimed at travelers who will be emphasizing travel that is outdoors, in the backcountry, and/or independent rather than a guided tour or package tour.

There are many countries that there are no guides for, because an ordinary Lonely Plant or Let's Go guide suffices: USA, France, Japan, even China and India. OTOH there are guides for USA by rail, World War I battlefields, Chinese wildlife, Tibet, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

You have me seriously considering a trip to Ethiopia.

Me too.

I do have to point out that every single item you chose to list in your "microeconomic guide to Ethiopia..." was better years ago, and is worsening.

Crime in particular, the petty kind that happens on the street is much more frequent today than it used to be.

Addis Ababa does continue to be remarkably safe for a capital city of its size, but you really have to watch out these days, in a way that you didn't before.

Pollution in Addis on the other hand, is so bad that walking certain thoroughfares in the city, you feel like you're choking up.

This is indeed in part due to a massive increase of vehicles, but also in no small part to domestic use of charcoal for cooking.

Here is the US embassy in Addis Ababa's real time pollution sensors webpage:


(And I should point out that the US embassy in Addis Ababa lies in relatively leafy, unpolluted part of town)

While it is true that a foreigner can easily converse with people in Ethiopia, income inequality and social tension have probably never been so high in the country.

Partly, this is due to development itself. As Tyler rightly points out, it is true that the discerning visitor can access any service in Addis for what remains by international prices, very good value for money.

These same services and commodities are purchased by the Ethiopian happy few as well, thus fuelling the discontent of the larger populace that can only watch from the sidelines - paved or not.

And on the subject of these same sidewalks that Tyler lauds -- which are indeed far better than they used to be, very good in fact (and are even often equipped with a physical markers for the visually impaired), however:

1. the congestion on the roads really makes walking arduous
2. to cross these same roads, pedestrians have to play chicken with very reckless car drivers

In fact, one of the things that strikes you when walking around Addis today, as compared to say, 10 years ago, is how much the city has been completely remodelled for the automobile.

I am not sure what the car ownership rate is in Addis Ababa, but I would venture that it is extremely low. (if I am to believe the website 2merkato.com, there is a grand total of 830 000 vehicles in the whole of Ethiopia).

Another Ethiopian statistic: according to the WHO, 2.77pc of the total deaths in Ethiopia... are caused by traffic accidents.

I liked this post. But if you're trying to develop a travelogue brand, this angle doesn't seem at all different from a Lonely Planet overview or Wikitravel.

Sometimes major thoroughfares have no sidewalks at all.

The same could be said of many American cities.

Excellent point on the sidewalks. I just got back from Morocco, and had a decent walk from the train station in Casablanca to my hotel (this was late in the trip, so I was tired of haggling, and cab drivers outside train stations are relentless). We didn't have a ton of luggage, but I felt like I'd hike 6 miles just because of the poor condition of the sidewalks, even sticking to major routes through downtown.

What a herd of wimps! You go to what's generally considered a third world country and expect first world amenities. Maybe only visit European capitals where there's easy pedestrian travel and readily available latte's. Don't forget that those interesting local restaurants aren't inspected by American health bureaucrats, there could be almost anything in your evening meal. Better off to stay in the safe, healthy US of A and make your trip via the Discovery Channel.

I don't think comments here should be read quite like you're restating them...I, at least, would be happy to go back to Morocco, but knowing about something that most travel sites/books overlook (like sidewalks) can help you plan more effectively. For instance, if I'd known Casablanca (which is, to my understanding and in my brief experience, a pretty modern/cosmopolitan city) didn't have particularly good sidewalks, I'd still have gone and had a great time, but I may have swapped a roller-bag for a backpack, or opted for the cab after all.

Good point. And it illustrates the fact that it's one's second trip to a foreign locale that's the most informative and illuminating. Then one already knows some of the pluses and minuses of the place and can enjoy it without unpleasant surprises.

I would rather visit places that mastered the internal combustion engines technology and can make not poisoned food.

These are good indices! I recently came from a trip from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; was pleasantly surprised all around at how pleasant the people were, how walkable it was because of the nice sidewalks. How generally safe it was. These indicators you mentioned should be made into an app!

Great for those looking to get up to date. Thanks!

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