When I'm traveling to new places I'll often get told, "You know that this city is the X of X." The most famous examples are cities with canals being called the Venice of the North / East or cities filled with beautiful architecture and small cafes being called the Paris of the East. There are even Wikipedia pages with lists of dozens of cities that claim these two titles!
I understand why these comparisons are made: to link the unknown to the known. We don't have an instant image that comes to mind when we hear, "Gdansk, Poland" but when it's called the "Venice of the North" we automatically associate our positive image of Venice into that of Gdansk. However, though I've occasionally used them myself, I've never liked these comparisons for a few reasons:
It's not true. Simply, if you're expecting Venice in Norway or Paris in Azerbaijan, you won't get it. Venice is more than canals and Paris is more than a few pretty streets dotted with cafes. Our perceptions of these cities aren't so two-dimensional. The positive images that we have of them and the feelings that they fill so many of us with, are dynamic and in many ways unmatchable.
It ignores the unique beauty – Even though these cities are not really like the places they're compared to, they are fascinating and stunning in their own unique ways. They have their own cultures, architecture, and spirit that make them perfect locations to visit. It's faster and easier to know of a place by a simple moniker, but we're capable of more depth in our descriptions.
It's teleological – By ignoring the uniqueness of these locations and promoting / linking them to the positives of others, we create a force of teleology. It becomes a pressure for these places to "develop into" their more famous counterparts, to mimic, and placing them as the opposite binary within a hierarchy.
Even though these claims can be misleading, they can also be interesting, so I thought I'd share a few of the more interesting examples I've heard in my recent travels. I'll share why they're made and a bit of why they probably shouldn't be.
In recent years Panama has seen a quick increase of tall skyscrapers, making it the most impressive skyline of the Spanish speaking world. Looking towards the height defying buildings from across the water at the famous Amador Causeway, the buildings seem endless! One thing all of this construction symbolizes is the influx of money into Panama, and the town is also known as a destination of choice for the wealthy from around Latin America, and the world- to come live and invest. Both the skyscrapers and the influx of moneyed foreigners en masse also describe the more well-known and marketed Dubai, and thus the comparison is made.
Another interesting fact- Panama is the city with the 3rd most skyscrapers in the Americas (and 20th in the world). It has 50- whereas New York has 259 (it's 2nd in the world) and Chicago has 116 (8th in the world). Dubai is 3rd in the world with 156.
Socotra, Yemen is the "Galapagos of the East"
I've not been to Socotra nor to the Galapagos, but both are on my dream list and for largely the same reason. These isolated islands are some of the most biodiverse areas in the world. Each island has hundreds of endemic species of flora and fauna, making for an out-of-this-world visual experience. Of course all of this is widely known about the Galapagos, made famous through Charles Darwin's expeditions there. Now there are hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit the Galapagos each year and it is largely considered a must-see bucket list item by most travelers. Socotra through, is less known. Unfortunately, many assume that because Socotra is part of Yemen, it must be as much of a dangerous warzone as what we see on TV from the country's mainland. However, this is not true at all. Though the war has made it difficult to reach Socotra (flights used to connect via the mainland, now not a possibility) the island has nearly always been safe and free from any violence.
Macau is the "Las Vegas of China" or the "Monte Carlo of the Orient"
When you think of glitzy casinos, big shows, and faux Venetian canals you think of Las Vegas, right? Well the tiny Chinese island of Macau has all that and more. An autonomous territory of China, Macau has its own currency, visa policy, police force and more to separate it from the mainland- however, this is where rich Chinese go when they're feeling lucky. But Macau isn't all that Chinese, or hasn't been for very long. Until 1999 (when it was transferred from Portuguese to Chinese control) it was the last European colony in Asia.
The comparison should probably be switched around as, in most ways, Macau is bigger than Las Vegas. In 2010, gambling revenue in Macau was 3x what it was in Las Vegas! Furthermore, the worlds biggest casino in terms of space, is the Venetian Macau. It is actually one of the 10 biggest buildings in the world! Beyond the casinos and flashing lights, little is the same between the two. Unlike the desert that surrounds Las Vegas, Macau is a tiny 12 square mile island with more than half a million people. This makes it the most densely populated region in the world. That said, there are some natural parts of Macau – and when I visited in early 2014- I spent most my time on long hikes, rather than in the casinos!
There are a handful of secretive, closed-off, authoritarian run, nations in the world with despicable human rights records. The one we hear the most about, of course, is North Korea- and that's due mostly to its nuclear ambitions / threats which directly affect (or certainly can affect) those of us in the West. Another one of these countries is Eritrea. The small country on the horn of Africa which was an Italian colony for almost 60 years and then fought a long hard war against Ethiopia before gaining independence in 1993. Before I visited I mostly only saw Eritrea in the news for the multiple times when their entire national football team declared political asylum when competing abroad. The country has responding by not competing in international tournaments. It's one of the few countries where citizens need an exit permit to leave the country and it is the only country in the world where all citizens must join the army- not for one or two years, but for life. However, though politically there are similarities to the closed and often brutal regimes of these two countries- as the a tourist the experience is quite different. On tours to North Korea you area essentially always with a government guide. You see only what you're shown, it is forbidden to carry local currency, and interactions with locals is minimal. In Eritrea however the situation is quite different. It isn't freedom like a visitor to the US or Europe – there are still permits required for different locations, the government sets an exchange rate that is essentially theft, and internet connection is expensive and slow. However, I spent nearly all of my time in Eritrea walking around, I don't remember seeing any police and I was never bothered nor felt watched. I had a lovely time, sitting each day at multiple cafes, speaking Italian with older locals. Of course, I'm incredibly aware that the day-to-day for the average Eritrean is not lounging at cafes and going for pleasant strolls, but even for tourists, that is not possible in North Korea.
Equatorial Guinea was the "Auschwitz of Africa" (1968-1979)
As I wrote, I don't like any of these comparisons. I think that they're silly and distracting. Usually it's distracting from the true and unique beauty of places. But this comparison I just find to be in extremely poor taste. For a little bit over 10 years, the first President of Equatorial Guinea- Francisco Macias Nguema led a reign a terror that saw up to 1/3 of the country's citizens killed or exiles. He essentially shut down the entire government other than his own security forces and in his later years even closed all schools. He liked to personally sentence people to death for arbitrary reasons such as wearing glasses.
He was later overthrown, tried for genocide, and executed. Those years are a horrifying stain on human history and though maybe a comparison sheds light on the extreme nature, genocides and mass killings are not things to be compared.
His successor has been in power ever since, but despite oil wealth discovery and nearly a decade as mainland Africa's only high-income country, the vast majority of the population lives in poverty.