Sunday, 20 February 2011

Norway, Europe’s Most Expensive Country

Although I have an ambition to visit all of the countries of Europe the quest has slowed down a little in the last eighteen months with limited opportunities to see new places due to several return visits to different regions of Spain, an annual holiday to the Greek islands of course and repeat visits to Poland, Germany and France. So by early 2011 and without a visit to a new European country since Estonia in December 2009, it was surely time to put this right.

One part of Europe that we have so far missed out is Scandinavia so with January Ryanair weekend flight bargains to Norway, Sweden and Denmark this was the perfect opportunity. There were a lot of destinations to pick from and after comparing all the options we finally choose Norway. We could have flown to the capital Oslo but it turned out that the airport is almost seventy kilometres from the city, which would have meant a lot of travelling in a short space of time, so we decided upon Haugesund instead, a city on the North Sea coast in between the two better known destinations of Bergen to the north and Stavanger to the south.

One of the reasons that we have tended to avoid Scandinavia is because of the notoriously high cost of living and the lofty prices relative to southern and eastern Europe but with flights at just £12 return (ok, plus the ludicrous £10 administration fee of course) we calculated that we could afford a couple of days of sky high northern European alcohol and restaurant prices without too much pocket pain.

The reason that Norway in particular is so expensive is that after World War Two, thanks to shipping, the merchant marine industry and a policy of domestic industrialisation the country experienced rapid economic growth. Then, from the early 1970s, there was further accelerated growth as a result of exploiting large oil and natural gas deposits that had been discovered in the North Sea. Today, as a result Norway ranks as the second wealthiest country in the world in monetary value, with the largest capital reserve per capita of any nation. It is the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, and the petroleum industry accounts for around a quarter of its gross domestic product. Norway has rich resources of oil, natural gas, hydroelectric power, forests, and minerals, and, after the People’s Republic of China is the second largest exporter of seafood in value. Following the financial crisis of 2007–2010, World bankers declared the Norwegian krone to be one of the most solid and reliable currencies in the world.

Because of this happy position Norway is one of the priciest countries to live in or visit and regularly features in the top five places where you can quickly run up an overdraft. For residents a high proportion of income is spent on housing and the monthly groceries for example for a typical family costs roughly £1,000. For Visitors dining out is an expensive luxury and a typical three star hotel in Oslo costs a whopping £150 a night, starting at the smallest hotel room and definitely without a balcony or a view. Alcohol, however, is the real killer (financially not medically) because the Government slaps on punitive taxes to stop people from drinking and the price of a bottle of spirits is four times that of the United Kingdom.

Norwegians can only by wine and liquor from special liquor outlets called Vinmonopolet (literally, wine monopoly) and there are normally only one or two of these in each city, depending on its size so some people living in the countryside have to travel great distances just to buy a bottle of wine or alternatively they just brew their own.
It’s not all bad news for Norwegians however because high prices go hand in hand with the country’s high standard of living. Hourly wages are extremely high to attract workers that would get the same pay in Norway’s oil or fishing industry and consequently products in the shops and supermarkets are expensive but to Norwegians, their pricey lifestyle is just something that they have come to terms with.

With budgets in mind the search for a hotel produced the highly recommended four star Clarion Collection Hotel Amanda situated right on the waterfront and at £110 a night all inclusive including evening buffet that seemed just about perfect so we had no hesitation in booking the room. On the day of departure and anticipating low winter temperatures we packed appropriately because Haugesund is just slightly further north than the Orkney Islands so we were expecting cold weather. And with alcohol prices in mind we left space for a three litre carton of red wine from the duty free shop at Stansted airport! It was a lunch time flight and with the one hour time difference we landed at Haugesund airport on the nearby island of Karmøy at half past four where due to the high northerly latitude of 59º it had already been dark for over an hour.

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