The Iron Economic Rule of Life, or, a page from the Very Occasional Travelogue

Kęty is a very nice place.

A stop in Sevilla serves well to refresh one’s memory regarding the iron economic rule in life.

The lesson applies to all things, of course: in literary consumption it says “thou shalt not read Kurt Vonnegut when Thomas Mann can be re-read instead”; in music, it says something similar about Brahms and Bach; and in tourism – about Seville and most other places in the world.

Do not misunderstand me: Seville is pretty, even cute. It has nice architecture; monuments; good vino; and, at night, girls decked out like they know what they want from decking out. Seville’s climate is not its strongest suit, but beats Kęty’s hands down. It has a white hot night-life, I am told, and it may even have culture, too (if you manage to look beyond the omnipresent tourist flamenco show). It certainly isn’t waste of time to be here; but it surely is a waste of time to come here – unless, like me, you are merely passing through and can take it in at no additional cost.

The place simply isn’t Rome. It does not have the Vatican Stanze or the Doria Pamphilj, the Barberini, or the Gesu; and yet – it costs the same. It costs as much to get here; and it costs as much to stay here. Why do it then? Why is there a line to get into the Cathedral (7.50 euros per person, thirty minutes’ wait in the white hot summer sun?) Why do tourists come here when they could go to Rome on the exact same budget?

I did come here, back in 1986, and thought the trip worthwhile then; but it was a peseta country then – the price-wise equivalent of Thailand or Malaysia today – and for that sort of money it certainly offered one a good vacation deal. But today it does not: twenty years of high inflation, structural transfers from the EU, a ten year bubble in real estate prices, and a staunch refusal to carry out any serious structural reforms have made Seville expensive without making it convenient (e.g. supermarkets are still closed on Sundays; the tourist information booth has no information about buses in and out, the bus company's website does not tell you from which of the three bus stations of Seville their buses depart and when you call their call center they tell you flat out that the journeys listed on their internet page do not exist at all, ect.). (Note: poor information exchange is the leading cause of economic backwardness).

Euro for euro, most Italian cities – even an also ran like Padova – and many French ones – Arles, for example – beat Seville black and blue.

I had the same feeling last summer in Warsaw. Warsaw actually does have tourist assets: it has fantastic theater scene, excellent art film studios, more than passable classical music scene (certainly better than Seville), and it has both art and monuments enough to fill in the lacunae. But last summer it cost more than Venice -- 3.6 Euros for a beer in Foksal, which, believe me, ain't no Saint Mark's.

Well, I said to myself, enough is enough and swore not to go back. But the currency has since taken a 40% dive against the Euro and Warsaw is sensibly priced again. And thus the door is open for me to go back again. (I won’t be having 2.20 Euro beers in Foksal; but the Chamber Opera seats are again attractively priced).

This is a trick Seville cannot pull: it has no currency of its own which it could devalue. Cost competitiveness can only come through grueling, vicious, bone-crushing deflation; it will come in time – the process has already begun (on this morning’s walk every other apartment seemed for sale; they were still expensive, but given the glut of properties, discounting only seemed a matter of time). But it will all take a very long time indeed. Until then, Seville will remain as she is now: simply not good value for money at all.

Nor will she see me again unless business takes me through again; which isn’t very likely.

As an illustration of my gripe, consider my hotel: 77 Euros on a Sunday night, but 95 on Fridays and Saturdays, it has friendly staff and fantastic cuerda seca in the lobby; but the room is ordinary, the bed flabby, the buffet breakfast (included in some prices, but not all, and when not included a mind boggling 10 euros) is indifferent, and the coffee absolutely awful. (The staff shrug apologetically: yes, I know, it’s terrible, but what I can do? It’s the company! And roll their eyes). In Thailand this quality would cost thirty dollars -- dollars, not euros -- at most (and the coffee would be exactly the same); but in Rome the standard -- and the price -- would be, well, par.

So, why not go to Rome, then and at least see the Doria Pamphilj for your trouble?

Yet, people come; and will continue to come. Why? The answer is – they have not been here yet.

This is how people travel, surprising as this may seem to me: no, they do not want to go back to Rome again, they have already been once, three days, and have seen the Vatican; they have even taken their photo with Venus de Milo. (Or was that Paris?) But Seville they have not yet been to. So to Seville they must go.

Why not Kęty then? I mean, really, why not?

The reason is the list: there is somewhere a list of visitable places; Seville is on it and Kęty is not. When a person travels, as they must several times a year, they just work their way down that list.

Why Kęty is not on the list is not clear, but Warsaw’s experience sheds some light on the question. Warsaw, just as its currency, and prices, peaked last summer (and its relative value reached its nadir) managed to make the list through the simple trick of running ads on CNN and BBC. All of a sudden all sorts of travelers met in all sorts of places were saying to me, oh, Warsaw, yes, I so much want to go.

Years of working in advertiging had made me cynical about these things; I have seen so much clients' money put into projects that did nothing or their brand; why, sometimes even -- not infrequently enough -- projects which did not even exist that I have become jaded; and come to the conclusion that it is all a rip off; an utter waste of money; a pure confidence trick, a madoff job, a ploy to part the fool and his money. After all, how could anyone be seriously expected to go out and buy a car only because they saw a pop star in a 15 second clip get into one while the assembled crowd oohed and ahhed? The very notion of this mechanism seems so transparently false to me that I would never buy a brand so advertised, assuming that it must be a real piece of junk if it needs a that sort of promotion.

But guess what? I am wrong. It works. Put it on TV, and they will come.


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