Which country is the friendliest for tourists?
14 November 2014
I've been invited into humble homes, offered all sorts of delicious (and sometimes not so delicious) local foods, been "adopted" by an entire village enjoying festivities, and even had my invitation to stay extended a few times. People are the heart of a nation and when they're warm and welcoming your experience generally reflects this.
According to the World Economic Forum, Iceland is home to the friendliest people, followed by New Zealand, Morocco and Macedonia, with Australia ranking towards the bottom of the list. However, according to a more recent survey by Conde Nast Traveler, Melbourne and Sydney are among the friendliest cities in the world.
Truth is, perceptions of what is friendly differ from person to person. Although I rate everywhere I've been and there isn't a place on earth I wouldn't visit again, there are a few countries that really stand out because of the generosity and warmth of the people.
Venture out of frenzied Ulaanbaatar into the undulating green that is country Mongolia (I'm talking summer) and you'll meet a local or two. You many not initially be greeted with a warm wide smile (a prolonged stare is more likely), but the generous nature of the Mongolian people is extraordinary. I can't name any other country where a group of us (I was travelling with Intrepid Travel (intrepidtravel.com) and there were eight of us) could knock on the door of a random house (ger, in Mongolia) and be taken in for the night – no questions asked. And no, it wasn't pre-organised. Historically, Mongolians are nomadic people, so for the home stay experience we approached whatever ger was nearby as the sun began to set.
Mongolians by nature will almost always welcome you into their home, share their food (even if they don't have much of it) and treat you as if you are one of their own. In our case, the family not only let us sleep in their home, they gave up their beds (two singles) and slept on the floor so we would be more comfortable.
One of my favourite countries, Oman is spectacular in all its offerings. The stark desert, the majestic mountains, the beautiful mosques, and the hundreds of Portuguese and Arabic forts are just some of the attractions to check out in a country that has been accessible to Westerners for only 25 years. Perhaps that's part of the charm.
Although I can only vouch for the men (the workforce is predominantly male) when you meet and get to know an Omani, you have the potential to make a lifelong friend. Adorned in their crisp-white dishdashas, with silver-hooked dagger sheaths at their waist belts, the sophisticated men of Oman will always make sure you get back to your hotel safely and do whatever they can to ensure your stay is comfortable. Omanis take great pride in showcasing their country – and for good reason.
When customs officials meet you with a wide grin and skippers laugh when they accidentally damage their own boat, you get a sense of what a country is like.
I quickly figured out why everyone is so happy here. The things we care about – keeping up with the Joneses and high-stress jobs – are trivial in the Solomon Islands. With food in their bellies and a roof over their heads, Solomon Islanders are the happiest bunch of people around. Most of the residents don't have a full-time job as such, instead they fish and forage during the day and eat and laugh well into the night. Come one, come all seems to be the message here. Wherever I went I was welcomed, and whatever they had was shared with me. Simplicity and authenticity at its best.
Thailand has been welcoming Australians by the thousands for decades and this hasn't changed. Apart from the idyllic coastline and top-grade cuisine, one of the reasons people go back is the open-hearted and friendly manner of the Thai people. Wide (often cheeky) smiles, lots of laughter and the ability to joke and get along with people – from wherever they are from – is one of the Thai people's greatest assets.
I've been received warmly as a backpacker counting my baht and as a honeymooner looking for the ultimate holiday to remember for years to come. Each time I've been met with that same gracious Thai custom.
Norfolk Island, Australia
Although technically this isn't a country, the self-governed external territory of Australia is home to more than 2000 people who know how to do friendly. They wave to everyone when they drive, invite you into their homes, and they talk … a lot.
What stands out about Norfolk Islanders is that although they are often low on time (many of the residents hold down several jobs because they enjoy being busy) they always have time. And when you visit a community where every member makes time for you … well, it ends up being a pretty fantastic holiday.