The 5 Weirdest Schemes Real Countries Use To Pay The Bills
Nation-states need money to survive, and they usually get it by collecting taxes, exporting goods, and of course, the most brilliant and practiced method of racking up tons of debt for the next guys to deal with. But sometimes all that stuff just doesn't cut it, and countries that aren't big enough to simply invade someplace with a lot of oil have to get creative with alternate streams of revenue. And by creative, we mean utterly ridiculous. For example ...
Thai Restaurants Are Secretly Funded By The Thai Government
America is a cultural melting pot, and that means we have ready access to delicious foreign cuisine. Even the smallest U.S. towns have a pizzeria, a Mexican restaurant, and a Thai place. And that last one is kind of weird when you think about it. America has about 54,000 Mexican restaurants and 6,000 Thai restaurants. However, there are over 36 million Mexican-Americans and barely 300,000 Thai-Americans. Which means that roughly every 50th Thai-American you meet will not just work at but outright own a Thai food joint. There has to be a reason for that (other than a compulsive need for tasty fish sauce). And there is: secret government backing.
Time to remove the tinfoil from the takeaway boxes and put it on your head, because Thai restaurants are a massive conspiracy. But not a malicious one; merely a delicious one. Thailand depends greatly on tourism, and it is the government's belief that yummy "authentic" Thai food plays a big factor in that. So for decades, they've been training chefs, offering cheap food exports, and funding Thai restaurants abroad -- all in order to turn the cuisine into an international mainstay. They even prefabricated three stock restaurant types for expat entrepreneurs to choose from. So if you ever wondered why a lot of Thai restaurants look copy/pasted, well, they are.
And the crazy thing is that this seemingly silly plan worked like a charm. In fact, it has had such a great impact on Thailand's international standing that others are now trying their hands at this "gastrodiplomacy" thing. Peru, Taiwan, and South Korea are all setting aside millions to win the West's heart through its stomach. Even North Korea has gotten in on the game, establishing a chain of over 100 government-run restaurants abroad. Unfortunately, those restaurants aren't doing great ... because the staff keep defecting. Having your waitress jump through a window to freedom does tend to sour a Yelp review.
Pacific Islands Once Survived On Phone Sex Scams
For most of the '90s, tiny Pacific countries like Niue (current population 1,600) and Tuvalu were titans of phone porn. Not because their citizens had exceptionally sultry voices, but simply because they were the ones hosting all the NSFW phone banks for large telecom businesses.
Why would these multinationals pick such faraway countries for their international smut trading? Two reasons. The first was that these small islands don't have the same stuffy regulations as big mainland countries, allowing phone sex lines to be unblockable, omit names from any bills, and cater to the most unsavory requests without fear of censorship. The second? Being at the ass-end of the world was a source of millions in revenue.
International phone calls are expensive, and international phone calls that reroute all the way around the world and back again are ridiculously expensive. So phone sex companies would string calls through Niue and its neighbors to wherever their husky-voiced women were, and horny callers didn't realize what was up until they were hit with massive unexpected bills for thousands of dollars. None of this was overtly illegal, either, because all the advertisements technically said something about how "international rates apply" -- they just didn't mention that the nation in question could only be reached via seaplane.
This scheme was so successful that in 1996, Niue was the second-biggest provider of phone sex services in the world. But in 2001, the FCC changed its regulations to prevent these exploits, and by the time internet porn became huge, the phone sex industry had shrank significantly, leaving Niue to fall on hard times.
Bhutan Props Up Its Economy With Novelty Stamps
While it is a very happy country, Bhutan isn't a wealthy one. For a long time, over half of its budget was dependent on foreign aid, and they had virtually no exports. But then some Bhutanese genius discovered stamp collecting -- the nerd hobby that gets you beaten up by other, cooler nerds. Philatelists pay good money for rare and exotic stamps, so the country (which has fewer people than Detroit) decided to get into the business, creating national stamps for the explicit purpose of making them collectibles. Which explains why Donald Duck has been deemed a Bhutanese cultural icon; it was just so they could stick his bill on a stamp.
This clever move not only pays for their entire postal service, but also nets them a cool half a million dollars each year. With that kind of money on the line, you better believe Bhutan does everything in its power to stay ahead of the stamp-making curve. They've printed stamps on silk, made stamps out of steel, and in 1972, they even tried printing stamps you could play on a record player.
If that's not absurd enough, they were also the first to ever print a 3D stamp back in 1994. Not bad for a country that only got a post office in 1962. They even managed to create a fully functioning CD-ROM stamp in 2009. Who knows, maybe one day they'll make a stamp that can let you check your email!
Ironically, Bhutanese stamps have become so valuable that they're too expensive for the Bhutanese themselves, who only have access to leftover batches unwanted by wealthy international lickers. Honestly, they're barely worth traveling the one road to the one post office for.
Tuvalu Rents Out Its Web Domain For Millions
Tuvalu, despite its name literally meaning "eight standing together," is a collection of nine small islands in the Pacific. And it's a good thing they never bothered to update the name, because it's the most valuable thing the country owns. With no exploitable resources, the island has always been terribly poor, but that changed when the internet came along and Tuvalu won the domain name lottery: .tv.
In 1998, Tuvalu managed to license its .tv domain rights to a Hollywood company for triple its yearly GDP, which finally allowed them to get electricity everywhere and pay the $100,000 entry fee to join the United Nations. (That might seem like a lot of money, but it includes membership to their gym.) And thanks to the current obsession with online video content, Tuvalu's .tv stock is soaring higher and higher, with the 11,000-strong nation raking in about $2 million each year.
However, recently, companies are starting to get worried about the longevity of a .tv domain. Not because Tuvalu is considering pulling their license, but because the islands are slowly but surely sinking into the ocean, thanks to climate change. And when Tuvalu disappears under the waves, so will .tv -- at least until some entrepreneur establishes their own microstate and calls it Televisionstan.
Nauru Will Recognize Your Rogue State For Cash
When Nauru's bird shit economy took a nosedive, it was desperate for cash, even the dirty kind. First it tried becoming a tax haven. When that failed, it tried its hand at becoming a national safety school, being paid by Australia to take in some of the refugees they didn't want. But then the itty-bitty island nation got a jolt of inspiration and started supplementing its income with some light international bribery. Nauru now specializes in striking Instagram-style diplomatic sponsorship deals. It will lend legitimacy to generally unrecognized states by acknowledging their sovereignty -- for the right price.
Or not. In July 2002, the island received $130 million from China to de-recognize Taiwan as an independent country ... only to re-recognize it in 2005 after Taiwan gave them a better offer. In 2008, despite having zero diplomatic ties in the region, Nauru backed faraway Eastern European Kosovo as an independent state, against Russia's wishes.
But corrupt game recognize game, so instead of seeking to punish Nauru, Russia saved some allowance. In 2009, Nauru recognized the sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two rogue Georgian provinces, for the bargain price of $50 million in Russian "humanitarian aid." Thrown in with their sponsorship package: Nauruan officials will even come over as "international observers" any time new "countries" like Abkhazia hold elections. We can only assume that Nauru will continue hustling its way out of starvation, at least until it too is swallowed up by the ocean in a few decades.
E. Reid Ross has a couple books, Nature Is The Worst: 500 Reasons You'll Never Want To Go Outside Again and Canadabis: The Canadian Weed Reader, both available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.