It’s often the people we meet on our travels who remain etched in our memories long after the temples, beaches and night markets have been forgotten: the passers-by who stop to offer directions then decide to take us there themselves; the waiters with a relaxed approach to bills (“Twelve euros but call it 10”); and the folk who invite us into their houses for a cup of tea then insist we stay for dinner.
Compiling a list of the world’s friendliest people by nationality is not without its challenges. Stereotyping is inevitable, especially as our exposure to a local population is often limited to hotel receptionists, tourist information officers and guides, all of whom are paid to be cheerful and polite. Friendliness is relative, however. Residents in the former Yugoslav republics of Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia went out of their way to make sure this writer felt at home – a courtesy they don’t always extend to each other. In Pakistan, I was treated with kindness and respect but solo female travellers I met experienced things differently.
The following nationalities do more to promote the image of their homeland than any number of tourist board marketing campaigns. They have an extra spring in their stride and a twinkle in their eye, and think nothing of helping out complete strangers.
The Irish are invariably described as “high-spirited” (drunk), “bubbly” (drunk on sparkling wine) and “full of life” (full of beer). But let’s skip the stereotypes. One in five adults in Ireland is teetotal and plenty of Paddies wince at the “all Irish are drunks” tag.
Good natured and fun – a dry sense of humour is almost compulsory on the Emerald Isle; when I asked a man in Galway why the houses on his waterfront street were painted in different colours, he explained that it was to help the owners find their way home after a night out.
Disproving the rule that people from the poorest countries are always the friendliest, Americans pull out all the stops to ensure (legal) visitors see their weird and wonderful nation in the best possible light.
Hospitable, kind-hearted and naively inquisitive, an American will offer you the shirt off his back, then ask if you have washing machines in your country. Outgoing and upbeat, Americans always seem to be having a nice day but that might be because one in eight of them takes antidepressants.
From the Himalayas of Nepal to the tropical beaches of Sri Lanka, the characters you encounter on the Indian subcontinent will define the trip. Six hours into a bus journey across Pakistan, I asked the driver when I should pay him. “That man bought your ticket,” he said, pointing to a passenger at the back with a big beard and a bigger smile.
Indians are similarly generous, which isn’t surprising as they’re guided by the Sanskrit phrase, Atithi Devo Bhava, meaning “the guest is God”. Sure, they can sometimes be a little over-curious: “And what is the maiden name of your good mother?” But generally, Indians are gracious, humble and love to chat. Usually about cricket.
Not so long ago Colombia had a reputation for drugs, kidnapping and civil war. Times have changed, however, and travellers are discovering a spectacular land inhabited by a proud people who are natural tourism ambassadors.
Declaring a love of soccer, cycling or Shakira will elevate your standing in the eyes of Colombianos. Tell them how beautiful their country is and you’ll be the toast of the town. You won’t need to fib, either: from the Amazon Rainforest to the Andes, the Caribbean Coast to Spanish colonial settlements, the South American nation is on the cusp of going viral. But for all the screen-saver scenery, it’s the Colombians themselves who deserve Unesco World Heritage status.
The reason so few Fijians have passports, so the joke goes, is because they can’t stop smiling for long enough to pose for a (straight-faced) portrait. From small gifts of fruit to invites to church for a Sunday singsong, Fijians make sure visitors feel like part of the family.
They’ll ask you to join them in a “gentle” game of beach rugby (the only time you’ll see a Fijian in a hurry), followed by the inevitable grog (kava) drinking session. Both will test your stamina but cement lifelong friendships – I still exchange Christmas cards with a village chief. And to think they used to be cannibals!
The ultimate seal of approval for a Portuguese hotelier or restaurateur is when a tourist returns for a second visit. They’ll remember your name and details from conversations that took place a year or two earlier (“Have they got rid of the pollution in Hong Kong yet?”). You might end up arguing over a restaurant bill but only because the owner is sneakily trying to undercharge you.
They’re soccer mad in this corner of the continent – mention how fantastic it was to see Portugal crowned European champions in 2016 and complimentary glasses of port will appear at your table before you can say “Cristiano Ronaldo is better than Lionel Messi”.
Some say New Zealanders are more English than the English themselves, but if that’s the case, why are the Kiwis always ready to strike up a conversation or help out a traveller in need?
At the height of Lord of the Rings mania, I arrived in Christchurch without a reservation only to find everywhere fully booked. After apologising for not having a vacancy, a determined B&B owner spent half an hour phoning around until she found me a sofa at a friend’s house. She then drove me there, because she thought I looked tired.
No list of happy hosts could ever exclude the ever-smiling Thais. Tolerance, patience and an ability to sidestep confrontation are qualities that come in handy when you’re welcoming in excess of 35 million visitors a year. Nevertheless, military coups, economic inequality and disrespectful tourists test cultural notions of social harmony – some commentators describe Thailand as the Land of (Forced) Smiles.
Fly in for a short break and the meet and greeters will live up to the polite, nothing-is-too-much-trouble stereotype. Spend longer in the country and you’ll realise the Thais have a smile for every occasion, ranging from the “genuinely happy smile” to the “I feel embarrassed smile” and the “you’re a complete idiot smile.” I see that last one a lot, for some reason.