Even though many western economies–from our own all the way to Spain and Greece–have struggled in the last few years, others around the world have genuinely prospered. Some are well-known (here’s looking at you, China), but others remain under the radar. One of the easiest ways to see how a country is doing is to look at its relative increase in gross domestic product (GDP)—basically, the market value of the things a country makes.
These seven countries have seen double-digit GDP growth in the last few years. Numbers aside, they’re beauties to visit–Mongolia and Sri Lanka were just named two of The New York Times’ places to go in 2013. Whether you’re traveling to these powerhouses for business or pleasure, you’ll want to make the most of their riches, either economic and otherwise. So read up on their cultures, history, geography–even how to pronounce their names, which is where we start…
Qatar (rhymes with “gutter,” not “guitar”) is to the Saudi Peninsula as Denmark is to northern Europe–it juts up into a body of water (in this case, the Persian Gulf) like a uvula. Economically, the country is ripping up development and GDP records, attracting huge investments in its energy sector in particular ($70 billion from US companies alone). More American businesspeople are traveling there as a consequence (hence the need for a “Qatar Business Traveler’s Handbook”), and though it shares a border with Saudi Arabia, Qatar has a different feel from its neighbor: You can drink alcohol there (if you buy a license to do so), women are allowed to both drive cars and vote (though there are no political parties), and even though Sharia law is in operation, don’t worry–it’s saved for domestic and family issues. If you’re heading out to be a tourist while you’re visiting this desert nation, Lonely Planet has you covered (via its “Oman UAE & the Arabian Peninsula” guide)–and make sure you look out for the beautiful oryx, a “gregarious antelope” that people think is the basis of the unicorn. (But beware: according to the “Qatar Business Traveler’s Handbook,” “the horns of a charging oryx can pierce the wood of a heavy door.”)
If it’s a beach holiday you’re after, Mongolia’s not your spot. Hemmed in by Russia and China, this huge country spreads across almost 604,000 landlocked square miles. Also, if you’re a people person, Mongolia might not be for you either, being the most sparsely populated large country in the world. A mere 2.75 million people live there, meaning you could fit five Nevadas inside Mongolia, though they have similar populations. (More ethnic Mongolians live in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China than in Mongolia itself.) But as the seat of the Mongol empire, the place is steeped in an extraordinary history–in the early 13th century, Genghis Khan led the Mongols to world dominance (the empire stretched from Poland to Korea, Siberia to Vietnam), as Jack Weatherford describes in “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.” Now, this historically agricultural country has gone through a mining boom, with 90 percent of its exports going to neighboring China. Mongolians are hospitable to a fault, but don’t make the mistake Louisa Waugh makes in her account of a year being nomadic in Mongolia, “Hearing Birds Fly”–she inhales snuff offered to her by an elderly herder, and “colors flashed before my eyes and I snorted like a horse in shock.”
The Central Asian state of Turkmenistan sits in one of the more fascinating geopolitical positions on the planet–it shares borders with both Afghanistan and Iran, and for much of the 20th century found itself subsumed within the cloak of the Soviet Union. Earlier in its history, its city of Merv was once known as the “gateway to Asia,” sitting as it did on one of the main Silk Road routes–Xinru Liu, in “The Silk Road in World History,” describes the importance of the Silk Road to trade. Finally made independent on Christmas Day 1991, the country nevertheless retains an authoritarian air–as the CIA Factbook notes, “the majority of Turkmenistan’s economic statistics are state secrets.” Nevertheless, the natural gas and cotton resources are staggering–for example, drivers in Turkmenistan get 34 gallons of free gas every month, and even if they need more, the price of $0.72 price per gallon will hardly break the bank. Americans are increasingly beating a path to the Karakum Desert-dominated landscape to do business, and may be amused to learn via the “Turkmen Dictionary and Phrasebook” that Turkmen for “we are American” is the ever-so-apt, “biz amerikaly.”
No list of surging economies would be complete without China. Since instigating economic reforms in the late 1970s, the country has come to dominate world markets, finally unleashing its demographic power (1.3 billion people) by becoming the biggest exporter and second biggest importer of goods on the planet. Its history and culture has been much written about in both fiction and non—everything from Jung Chang’s international bestseller, “Wild Swans,” to the works of 2012 Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan (“Red Sorghum” is a good place to start). There are plenty of business books to read, too, from accounts of its economic rise (“When China Rules the World”; “China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power”; “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know”) to how its one-party politics affects daily life and business (“The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers”; “Out of Mao’s Shadow”).
Papua New Guinea
A large island off the northern coast of Australia, New Guinea, second biggest island in the world after Greenland, is one of the most extreme landscapes in the world, boasting a central mountain range of 11,000 feet peaks covered in lush, inhospitable jungle. Its indigenous peoples are made up of several thousand different groups, many of whom are in conflict with each other–there is even one tribe, the Korowai, who have practiced cannibalism for much of their existence (and it is thought they may still do so). The eastern half of the island of New Guinea is the country of Papua New Guinea, and despite political unrest, it has seen a huge boom in its economy, thanks to the PNG LNG project. ExxonMobil is currently leading a consortium of companies in this massive, $15.7 billion effort to extract liquified natural gas from the island, with 2014 slated to see the first deliveries to China, Taiwan and Japan. But before PNG LNG, Papua New Guinea showed few signs of modern life: Tim Flannery‘s now-classic account of the island, “Throwim’ Way Leg,” saw the Australian botanist report on this a place where some men still wear penis gourds, and a single television in a store in the capital, Port Moresby, in the mid-1990s, caused a large crowd to display “faces filled with amazement.”
Across South America, economies have been growing at a strong rate ove the past two decades, and Argentina has been leading the way. Rich in cattle–its agricultural exports are a traditionally robust sector–the country is now strong in manufacturing, too, especially around its bustling capital, Buenos Aires. Another important export are its arts, most notably its tango (the illustrated history of which can be found in Robert Farris Thompson‘s “Tango: The Art History of Love”) and its literature, in the form of writers like Jorge Luis Borges, whose short story collections (most notably “Fictions” and “The Aleph”) continue to dazzle and confuse lovers of post-modern authorial slipperiness.
Another island country whose GDP has been soaring is Sri Lanka. The former Ceylon, which sits like a comma off the southeastern coast of the Indian subcontinent, was once known for its tea exports–now, it’s just as well-known for its strength in telecommunications and finance. The result has been a doubling of personal incomes since 2005 and an unemployment rate of just 5 percent. But that only tells half the story: Sri Lanka is an incredibly beautiful island–lush, mountainous, and bursting with wildlife. There are leopards and elephants and monkeys and hundreds of species of bird, making it the most ecologically diverse place in all of Asia. One of the best places to start reading about Sri Lanka is with one of its finest literary exports, Michael Ondaatje, whose “Running in the Family” recounts the story of his Dutch-Ceylonese family.