Macedonia: what’s in a name? A major controversy!

The erection of a giant statue of Alexander the Great in the Macedonian capital of Skopje is the latest round in an ongoing controversy with neighboring Greece.

The statue, erected on Tuesday as part of an ambitious urban development plan called Skopje 2014, drew criticism from some Greek politicians and nervous mutterings from European diplomats. They say it’s deliberate provocation because Greece objects to the name Macedonia. Using this name, some say, implies a claim over the Greek province of Macedonia, where Alexander the Great was actually born. Of course neither country existed at the time, the land being divided up into a patchwork of ancient city-states. When history is used as a propaganda tool, historic accuracy goes out the window.

Macedonia, officially the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, broke off from Yugoslavia in 1991 and has been in a row with Greece about its name ever since. This isn’t some minor squabbling. Greece successfully blocked Macedonia’s entry into NATO and is stonewalling the country’s attempts to join the European Union. With Macedonia being one of the poorest countries in Europe, this argument over a name is costing them a lot.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

A new place to spend euros: Estonia

One of the greatest boons to travelers in recent years is the expanding eurozone. Gone are the days when you spent a few days in France, then wasted money getting your francs exchanged into lire in order to visit Italy. There were always a few odd coins left over that ended up sitting useless in the sock drawer.

At the start of 2011, Estonia has become the 17th country to join the eurozone. The kroon will soon become a memory as the old currency is phased out.

While this is good news for travelers carrying euros, it could carry a hint of future trouble. Many countries that adopted the euro saw prices rise as shopkeepers rounded up in the exchange. This is what happened in Spain, and prices never stopped rising. What used to be a budget travel destination soon became almost as expensive as the rest of Europe. Living in Madrid I’m constantly hearing Spaniards complain about how much more expensive things are these days.

Estonia has also become a budget travel destination in recent years. The Baltic republic may be small with only 1.3 million people, but it has an interesting history, some beautiful countryside, and a distinct culture. Hopefully it won’t get too expensive to experience all that.

France gets a fifth star

France has a new way to define luxury. A new five-star category has been added to the country’s hotel ranking system … as if you’d need the extra star to pick one of these properties out of a lineup! The marketing ploy, of course, is to use the extra etoile to draw big spenders and entice them to open their wallets a bit wider. France had to amp up its ranking system, as it was the only country in Europe lacking a five-star category, despite its reputation as a destination. You can now find 13 five-star hotels in Paris.

While France has resisted the worst of the travel market slump in Europe, according to a report by Deloitte, it has lost some British and American tourists. The French government hopes the fifth star will help invite them back. Visitors to France have fallen 7.5 percent this year to 15.9 million, according to the Paris Tourism Office. And, the market has suffered a 14 percent drop in revenue per available room night for the first half of 2009, thanks to shrinking demand, shorter booking times and competitive pressures.

Yet, Paris did have the highest occupancy rate in the euro zone (74 percent) and the second highest average room rates (after Venice) for the first half of the year.

[Photo via MigrantBlogger]

French francs worth something again!

You know where your expired money is. Now a collectible rather than currency, your kids have those leftover lira in a shoebox under the bed. Or, they’ve stashed a jar of “funny money” on the nightstand. Wherever it is doesn’t matter. These random pieces of paper may ignite a child’s imagination about far-off lands or trigger a fond memory from an amazing trip, but the value is strictly sentimental.

Not any more.

The Currency Commission wants to help you turn all these strange bills into real money, specifically Euros. Sure, they’ll take a cut along the way, but that’s only fair. After all, The Currency Commission is turning nothing into something.

You may remember that the notion of a pan-European currency became a reality in 1999. Since then, sixteen countries surrendered their monetary identities in favor of the efficiency of conformity, in addition to others (such as Monaco) that have currency relationships with other countries. Clearly, the experiment has worked. Only three years later, €1 is worth $1.30, and that’s after a decline through much of last year.

Though we celebrate the Euro today, there’s still a lot of orphan old money out there, especially in major non-European countries such as the United States, Canada and Japan, according to David Brooks, The Currency Exchange’s public relations advisor. The people holding this currency missed the deadline for changing it to Euros. Often, the legal currency was in such small amounts that those holding it simply didn’t care.What The Currency Commission realized, however, is that there’s a ton of small money tucked away in sock drawers and coffee cans all over the world. In Germany, for instance, Brooks has seen a study suggesting that there could be up to €3 billion worth of unrecovered Deutsche marks. If you assume a similar amount of legacy currency outstanding for each of the 16 countries officially on the Euro, well, a lot of a little becomes a lot of a lot. And, The Currency Commission just wants a small piece of each transaction.

So, worthless money becomes worth something again. Yeah, I thought I smelled bullshit, too. When I asked Brooks why people should trust The Currency Commission, he made the obvious and powerful point: it’s not like you’re putting anything of value at risk. And, he’s right. At present, your 10,000 lira isn’t worth a dime. So, what do you lose by testing out this service? “Kick the tires. Try it with a small amount first,” Brooks recommends to the skeptics, “then, do more later.”

The process is pretty straightforward. Simply create an account, select the currency and amount you plan to exchange, print and sign the receipts, then mail them in with the bank notes. Your new cash will come back in fewer than 14 days. The company is working on a PayPal interface right now, which Brooks expects to make the process even faster.

If you rush over to The Currency Commission right now, you won’t be the first user. Hundreds have already come before you and swapped old currency for new since the service first launched in early October last year. Among them … Brooks’ parents!

Of course, there’s one big question in all this, and Brooks knew it before I could ask. “I know,” he said with a laugh, “how do we make money, right?” Brooks explains that even though the exchange deadline has passed, the various central banks in Europe are still willing to exchange aged cash for Euros. They just prefer to do it locally. So, The Currency Commission aggregates and repatriates. It collects currency from its customers, sends the money back to its homeland and makes the trade. Economies of scale kick in. again, all these small transactions add up.

So, if you have any dated dinero lingering on your desk, ship it off to The Currency Commission. Your money may be worth something (again).

Savvy Traveler: Eurozone vs. European Union

People who come to Eastern Europe (or East Central Europe–as those who like to remove themselves from any association with Russia–call Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic now) often wonder why even if they are in the EU, they can’t use euros here. Nothing is ever easy with the EU, is it.

There are 27 member states in the EU, yet only 13 of them have entered stage 3 of their EU membership: adoption of the Euro currency.

Here are the EU countries NOT using the Euro:

  • United Kingdom
  • Denmark
  • Sweden
  • Czech Republic
  • Bulgaria
  • Romania
  • Hungary
  • Poland
  • Cyprus
  • Estonia
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Malta
  • Slovakia

However, only Denmark and the UK negotiated a Euro exclusion from the original Maastricht Treaty.

The rest of the countries must legally join the Eurozone sooner or later, whether it is an economic advantage to them or not. The Czech Republic, for example is trying to postpone the Euro adoption as long as possible (fears of inflation) while Slovakia wants to be on the Euro as quickly as possible (hopes for new business opportunities). What everyone agrees on is that adopting the Euro makes everything more expensive for the consumer…and for the tourist.