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Can countries still be worth visiting and reserve the right to be unfriendly? Photo / Potter and Potter, Getty Images
Last week Conde Nast Traveller UK named New Zealand as the third friendliest country in the world. Should we be happy about that?
It is the time of year when every magazine and website compiles their lists of top countries, most luxury lodges and beaches to sway your travel plans.
Even Herald Travel is not blameless in the pursuit of an arbitrary list of ‘best’, ‘most beautiful’ or ‘greatest’ destinations.
But there was something that irked me about this award from the opening statement.
“From the ever-beaming people of Sri Lanka to the famously open-armed population of New Zealand, our planet is home to some seriously friendly countries,” glowed the awards text.
“Famed the world over for their laidback, positive attitude towards life, the native inhabitants of New Zealand (known as Māori) have only called the island home for 800 years.”
It’s not (entirely) because Aotearoa was robbed of the top billing in manaakitanga. It’s not even because they cut a couple of centuries off Kupe’s arrival from Hawaiki.
It’s because there’s something that doesn’t sit right with ranking countries by the “freindliness” of the inhabitants.
While not the most woke of awards, they were welcomed by the tourism industry.
But the more you read into the ‘friendliness rankings’ the less there is to smile about.
The award makes two insidiuous assumptions. Firstly, if there is a list of “most friendly” countries, there must also be a ranking of “unfriendly” countries as well.
Secondly, it is made with the subtext of these countries being “friendliest to visitors”. It’s a list intended to guide an international traveller, looking to be pampered.
It has an air of: “Take off your pith helmet, the natives are friendly.”
It’s important to note that 8 of the top 10 friendliest countries fall outside the UN’s top 50 Human Development Index. And French Polynesia, which was ranked number one on Conde Nast Traveller’s list, doesn’t get an HDI score because it is technically part of France – because… Parce ce, that’s why.
Another thing these countries all share is a heavy reliance on tourism. Pre-pandemic about $17.5 billion or a fifth of New Zealand’s export trade came from international tourism. We rely on tourism and have all seen what happens when the tap turns off.
But, I’m not trying to argue that top destinations are welcoming because of the revenue tourists bring, nor that these countries attract tourist dollars because they are so very “friendly” – that’s Conde Naste’s schtick.
Can countries still be worth visiting and reserve the right to be unfriendly?
This year the Expat Insider Study 2022 went as far as to identify the least welcoming nations.
Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway all ranked top for lifestyle and social support but in the bottom ten for friendliness and welcome.
“Unusually high quality of life with unusually unfriendly people” was the top line impression of international residents in Vienna. Is unfriendliness a luxury only northern Europeans can afford?
As a travel writer I understand, you’re confined by the 100 words you have to dedicate to a country. There’s a shorthand one falls into. ‘Best of’s are top lines to guide your reader, not a doctoral thesis. But as a traveller, I also appreciate that there’s no such thing as a “national temperament.”
If your impression of any place is only ever a few nights’ deep, and every other person you meet is professionally obliged to check you into your resort, or provide you with guidance on how to use a paddleboard – of course you’ll meet a high proportion of “friendly” people.
The lazy travel cliche is a thing of comfort. I’ve written about my fair share of “timeless hotels,” “pristine beaches”,”green AND verdant” lands. Mea culpa.
But maybe it is time the epithet “friendly locals” was consigned to the 1950s, where it belongs.
9. Sri Lanka
5. Costa Rica
3. New Zealand
1. French Polynesia
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Is unfriendliness a luxury only northern Europeans can afford?
Opinion: NZ one of the world's 'friendliest countries'? It's nothing to smile about – New Zealand Herald
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