Countries with big ambitions

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2007, 12:00am

Iceland has a population slightly less than Kowloon's Yau Tsim Mong district, but it wields a remarkable economic clout. Famous for its thermal spas and volcanoes, the North Atlantic island nation is warming up as an influential player on the global stage.

While enjoying low inflation and unemployment, Iceland has one of the highest consistent growth rates in the world due to successful management of its fisheries resources, industry diversification, privatisation, liberalisation and deregulation, price stability, development of its stock exchange, encouragement of foreign investment and business-friendly tax reforms.

While marine products still hold sway among Iceland's exports, overseas sales of manufacturing products have seen a 27 per cent increase for January-September compared with the same period last year.

Iceland is active in Britain, where several fashion chains, such as Oasis, Karen Millen and Whistles, are partly owned by the Icelandic Baugur Group. The group grew from a humble food shop in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, 18 years ago.

Iceland's commercial inroads on the European continent belie a small population of about 313,000. About 6 per cent of the total holds foreign citizenship, including 700 Chinese residents. Poles make up the largest minority nationality by a considerable margin.

The booming economy has led to a surge in immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe, and all residents form an increasingly multicultural society that, last year, ranked second on the United Nations Human Development Index.

Last year, Icelandic billionaire Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, in a move that came at the crest of Iceland's international business push, headed a consortium that snapped up London's West Ham Football Club.

Football fans have already seen Icelandic skill in action on English football pitches. Eidur Gudjohnsen, captain of the Iceland national side, played six seasons for Chelsea and compatriot Herman Hreidarsson now plays for Portsmouth.

A wave of Icelandic cultural exports, such as the artist Bjork Gudmundsdottir and the group Sigur Ros, have arrived on distant shores, in tandem with the country's international business ambitions.

Another Scandinavian country famed for its high quality of life, Denmark, enjoys strong historical and cultural ties with Iceland.

Unlike Iceland, however, Denmark is a European Union member state, but this Nordic nation has, like Sweden, shown a distinctively Scandinavian streak of independence by staying resolutely outside the Euro currency zone. For centuries relying on farming, fishing and seafaring and without major natural resources, Denmark experienced rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in the 19th and early 20th century.

Since the mid '90s, the economy has experienced a long-lasting upturn after years of high and generally rising unemployment. Since then unemployment has dropped to one of the lowest levels in the EU.

These trends, coupled by good governance and a strong ethical code, enabled the creation of an enduring model welfare state in which individual aspirations, the communal good, family life and economic growth all work together rather than militate against each other.

More than 33 per cent of employed Danes work in the public sector.

Denmark's modern market economy comprises hi-tech agriculture, a sound balance of small-scale and corporate industry, and a robust export sector.

Denmark is a net exporter of food, especially dairy and meat products, and Danish produce can be found in Hong Kong supermarkets.

Denmark is also a major player in the world's shipping industry and is home to Maersk, one of the world's largest container shipping lines. Maersk vessels are a common sight in Hong Kong and the rest of the world.

One in five Danes live in the capital, Copenhagen, the largest city in Scandinavia.

It is an appealing metropolis with a low-rise skyline that has not changed much since the days of author Hans Christian Andersen who wrote his famous fairy tales there in the 19th Century.