Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Tout France

Sometime correspondent (and blogger on all things culinary near Puget Sound) Ronald Holden is in New York for French Affairs, a conference put on by the French Government Tourist Office.

Although Ron rightly complains about this agency's overly busy Web site (although I love that it leads to a vlog called Lost in Francelation), he finds much to admire about France's unified national program for attracting tourist dollars:

France was the first country to target a wide variety of niche travel markets: gay & lesbian, Jewish, religious, Hispanic, luxury, first-timers, retirees, French expats. Theme travel, too: culinary, wine, ski, spa, and so on. There's no comparable agency promoting the entire USA; individual companies (airlines, hotel chains, Disneyland destinations) and individual states and cities are expected to do their own marketing campaigns. The Sarkozy government pitched in to help France's embattled hospitality sector by cutting the VAT on restaurant meals by 75 percent, but hotel revenues, in the world's most visited country (77 million foreign tourists a year) are still down 13 percent.

So: Not only does France go out of its way to welcome everyone and tempt them with everything, it's also applying good old-fashioned tax policy to make eating out cheaper across the entire country.

That can only encourage longer stays and accomplishing something I was unable to do last year: tear myself away from Paris proper and see the countryside.

It makes me wonder who could possibly take the reins and promote Brand America with one voice, 'round the world. I mean, besides Disney.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cupping Rwanda


A few years ago I helped a client edit a paper on improving African value chains. The paper looked at out how, say, Ugandan growers who made just a nickel on each pineapple could capture more of the five euros the same pineapple fetched by the time it wound up at a Paris grocery store.

There are lots of ways to pull this off. Growers can band together to demand better prices from middlemen, or form their own middleman organization. Or they can pool funds for a processing plant that creates value-added foods like pineapple chunks or slices. Or get a reputable group to certify the pineapples as organic. Or create a brand around the supposed uniqueness of pineapples from a specific Ugandan region, much like the DOC system does for Italian wines. Even simply building cool-storage facilities that keep a surplus fresh for sale at a more favorable time can improve returns.

If you're Rwanda and you have excellent coffee beans but a slight image problem thanks to the 1994 genocide, rebranding seems to be the way to go. In this morning's Post, "A pick-me-up for Rwanda" details how some entrepreneurs are promoting Rwandan coffee here in D.C., a town that I assure you is in desperate need of better espresso:

Emblazoned on the windows of Bourbon Coffee is the phrase "Murakaza neza," which in the Rwandan language of Kinyarwanda means "We welcome you with blessings."

Rwanda is better known for the 1994 genocide that left more than 800,000 people dead than for its cappuccino. But that doesn't stop Arthur Karuletwa, founder of Bourbon Coffee, from dreaming big.

"If done right, it could be the platform to re-brand the country," says Karuletwa, former chief executive and now a shareholder in the company. Coffee can "create awareness that there's recovery, there's trade, there's investment opportunities, there's tourism. There's life after death."

Rwandan coffee growers experience some typical developing-world problems, including poor infrastructure for getting coffee to market, large numbers of small growers, and corrupt officials. But they've also got a product that raises eyebrows among coffee professionals:

"Rwanda is a very wanted origin," says Susie Spindler, executive director of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, which runs the Cup of Excellence competition [the Oscars of coffee]. She says coffee traders and roasters visiting Rwanda are discovering unusual flavor profiles they never knew existed.

"It mixes a lot of regular characteristics that you usually only find in one area," agrees Stacey Manley, Bourbon's barista. "Latin American coffees tend to be lighter-bodied and kind of nutty with cocoa. But you almost never find an earthy, really heavy-bodied Latin American coffee. Those are typically Indonesian characteristics. And in Indonesia, coffee is very rarely bright. So the weird thing about Rwandan coffee is it'll have all these different characteristics in one coffee."

In the tradition of European wines, Rwanda has succeeded in establishing five distinct coffee appellations. Altitudes and soils vary among the appellations, creating unique flavors: spicy with hints of tea and cocoa in one, nutty with berry and floral notes in another.

So I'm going to go and try Bourbon Coffee, which is at 2101 L St. NW. Watch for stores in Boston and New York. Socioeconomic competitor: the three Juan Valdez Coffee outlets in D.C., which I tried once. While the decor was beautiful, I could barely gak down the espresso; Juan must have been having an off day because everyone else seems to love the joint.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Clinton, Russia and the Caucasus


Secretary Clinton doesn't spend a lot of time at home lately, and I suspect one big reason is that she's taken on the Russia portfolio at State.

Not only does she have the thankless task of persuading Moscow to tighten the screws on Iran, prodding it gently on human rights, and supporting its WTO bid, she also appeared at the signing of the new Turkish-Armenian agreement that opens the countries' borders for the first time in 16 years and invites the establishment of embassies in each other's capitals.

What's this last task have to do with Russia? A financially exhausted Moscow would love to see a more stable Caucasus whose squabbling nations—Chechnya, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, various "autonomous republics," etc.—didn't soak up quite so much money and attention.

It's no surprise that the first visit by an Armenian president to Turkey is to attend a Turkey-Armenia soccer match. Feelings about the match run high in both countries but at least neither is still in the running for the World Cup. As one Armenian man interviewed by the BBC put it, "Perhaps a draw would be the perfect score as it would be a show of goodwill between the two countries. ..."

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

BJP and the One-Party State

This morning's Times had an interesting piece about the collapse--to near irrelevance--of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu ultra-nationalists whose rise interrupted generations of Congress Party dominance. What's interesting is that Lydia Polgreen explicitly compares the BJP's flameout to the U.S Republican Party's loss of the presidency last year:

NEW DELHI — It is an all-too-familiar political story.

First there was the electoral drubbing at the hands of a center-left juggernaut. Next came the recriminations, with party leaders taking nasty, public swipes at one another in dueling magazine articles, op-ed articles and talk show appearances. Then came the agonizing debate: should the party lurch rightward to consolidate its base, or rush toward the center to attract moderate voters? And finally, the purge: party members who do not make the ideological cut are cast out or pushed aside.

If the script sounds familiar to those who have followed American politics in the last year, this one is playing out in the majestic, colonial-era halls of power in India’s capital ...

Polgreen points out that, virulent though the BJP may have been, its emergence as a viable alternative to Congress drove New Delhi to actually get things done--which Congress, unopposed in the past, didn't excel at. In the U.S., the Republican Party also shook things up with its dozen years' control of Congress following Democrats' 40 years.

At its roots the BJP is a Hindu fundamentalist party that alienated many with its insistence that a Hindu temple should replace a Muslim mosque, a stance that caused rioting and hundreds of deaths over the past decade or so. Now that it's in the wilderness, the BJP will be forced to reexamine its core beliefs and, like the GOP here, has begun that process with a purge of those judged insufficiently zealous.

It remains to be seen whether later generations see the coming years as the point where these parties were reduced to merely regional power, or expanded their influence by beckoning a wider range of followers.

The GOP has experience with reinventing itself in precisely this way, dating back to the rise of Ronald Reagan. Will the BJP make the same choice, or doom itself to ruling Gujarat?
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