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I’m spending six days as a tourist in Lagos, Nigeria. A lot of people seem to think that’s pretty strange.
The place is not renowned for its food (one of my main interests), nor was there a special event or festival on, nor did I know anyone in Africa’s biggest metropolis. It’s commonly cited as one of the most crime-ridden, congested and hellish cities on the planet. That’s not a fair description (a topic for another column), but I didn’t know that before booking.
Nigeria’s Horrors and Hopes
People seemed surprised to see me and I did not encounter many other evident tourists. The Nigerian clerk at my (upscale) hotel expressed shock that a white person had arrived. Perhaps she thought I was a sex tourist, as she continued in full enthusiasm: “The room is solo? Don’t worry, Nigerian women just love men like you!” I believe she meant this as local hospitality, though under another reading it is a veiled critique. The truth, I admit, is indeed pretty strange. I like to go around and look at gross domestic product, and that simple fact explains much of my unusual behavior abroad.
Nigeria is now the country with the highest GDP in Africa, having surpassed South Africa, and it ranks globally at number 26. If Lagos state were a country, it would have the fifth largest GDP on the continent.
As an economist, I feel a moral pull, not to mention a personal curiosity, to see goods and services being produced. That means visiting Lagos’s renowned computer market and fabrics market as well as its fast-food shops, shopping malls, street food and ice cream parlors. I sought out its bridges, canals and electric generators, though not the oil areas — there are too many kidnappings there.
Making large-scale structures and trading goods and services are among the most human and noble of activities, so is it actually so strange to visit them, as one might enter a cathedral or make a pilgrimage to Gettysburg? For all the talk about human interactions being the key to a wonderful trip, those interactions usually require some sort of scaffolding and structure to one’s daily activities, and on that score a quest for GDP can help out. I’ve yet to go on a safari.
The commercial view in Lagos is of course a mixed one. Nigeria barely has its own automobile industry (only 2,600 jobs), and the manufacturing base is generally weak, but the country has demonstrated a tantalizing ability to mobilize its intellectual and entrepreneurial talents. That facility may define a new path for economic growth in an era when manufacturing jobs are disappearing across the globe due to automation. The result is a city full of smartphones, where my iPad connects more quickly than at home in Virginia, but there are also gut-wrenching traffic jams and millions of people living in shanties.
It’s an interesting question whether, to understand a city, you would rather read 10 books about it or visit for a day. I’ll take the visit, but if you can do both even a short trip makes the written word more vivid and context-laden. It still amazes me that I once had a professorial colleague from a top school who researched Africa and published papers on it, but had no interest in going.
Visitors should avoid the mistake of judging living standards through appearances alone, because that tends to overweight the value of infrastructure. Prague in the late 1980s looked pretty splendid, largely because of its historic buildings, but good consumption opportunities were hard to come by. South Korea impresses with its roads, bridges, ports and trains, but the widespread poverty of the country’s elderly is harder to see. As for Lagos, its infrastructure appears mediocre to Western eyes, and so we probably underrate its prosperity. But if you are arriving from the Nigerian countryside you might be impressed by the tall buildings and road network and thus overrate the wealth of the place.
My interest in GDP tourism dates back to my teenage years in the late 1970s. I grew up in northern New Jersey and enjoyed the industrial beauty outside of New York City on periodic drives, mostly centered around the Pulaski Skyway. At that time, U.S. manufacturing employment was in its heyday. These days, cruising around retail chains and dental offices doesn’t provide the same thrill. So I’ve gone to see the key regions of the world’s largest and most successful economies, whether it be the port of Rotterdam, the skyline of Singapore or Chinese tech hubs like Shenzhen. I started in the 1980s with a trip to the then still-vital West German Ruhr.
I don’t ever expect a GDP cruise or even a GDP tourist guide or agency, but perhaps a few Bloomberg readers won’t find this approach to travel so totally off the mark.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation.”
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