Only a few weeks after visiting Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world, almost at the bottom of the UN index of human development, I have just returned from a fortnight touring Norway which sits at the top of that chart and by a number of measures is the richest country on the planet. The GDP per person in Norway of $97,000 is just about the highest you will find whereas it does not get much lower than the $360 in Sierra Leone. Although similarly sized in terms of population, around 5 million, it is hard to think of two places that are more different.
However, Sierra Leone like many African countries has an abundance of natural resources and of course at the heart of Norway’s economic strength continues to be its exploitation of North Sea oil and gas, representing 25% of their GDP. Getting the minerals out of the ground and to market and capturing the revenue is the obvious and immediate challenge for Sierra Leone and that might take some time to fully accomplish. However, a key lesson they might take away in the meantime is to follow Norway’s example in prioritising investment into a high quality education system, to which Norwegians have universal and free access, and a functioning infrastructure that brilliantly supports the scattered population centres across their vast land mass.
With a significant dependence on the marine and energy sector it is no surprise that Lloyd’s specialist insurers do well in Norway, writing around $300m of premiums, more than the rest of the Nordic region put together. Historically the ties with the London Market are strong and interestingly UK is the leading Norwegian export market. Curiously, therefore in two weeks of driving I saw hundreds of Germans and Dutch but just two other GB registered vehicles. Since the closure in 2008 after 100 years of operation of the last direct ferry service between Newcastle and Bergen, Norway is now a long way away, which in part explains the absence of the Brits. The other more obvious reason, as I soon discovered, is that for nearly all outsiders, including the British, Norway is a very expensive place to visit.
Not that I ate one but it is a fact that a burger that costs $4.33 in New York will set you back $7.06 in Oslo, the most expensive in the world. The latest Big Mac index recently published in the Economist, based on the theory of purchasing-power-parity, calculates the exchange rate that would leave the Big Mac costing the same in each country. By that measure, the Norwegian krone for some time has been the most over-valued major currency versus the dollar. Currently trading at over 60% higher than its “true” value, the krone has emerged as a haven from Europe’s debt crisis; soaring to a nine-year peak against the euro this month, as Norway’s oil wealth and fiscal strength continues to spur major capital inflows. Not great news for the tourist but of less concern to those that live there permanently who are paid as well as spend in local currency.
So no wonder the Norwegians all look so content with life not least because they have their wonderful country more or less to themselves; and what a country! Norway has to be the most relentlessly beautiful place on earth; a complete scenic overload. Looking down on the Lysefjord from the Preikestolen cliff face; kayaking amongst the icebergs to the front of the Jostedalsbreen Glacier; climbing the mountain ridges in the Jotunheim national park; barbequing freshly caught halibut from the Bergen Fisketorget in the late summer sun. These are only some of the memories I have from a fabulous vacation in Norway and despite the cost it is a fantastic destination I would wholeheartedly recommend.