A surprising map of the countries that are most and least welcoming to foreigners

March 21, 2013

Click to enlarge. (Max Fisher/Washington Post)

Buried several hundred pages into a new World Economic Forum report on global tourism, past the sections on air travel infrastructure and physician density (by which they mean the number of physicians per capita, not the mass-per-cubic-meter of individual doctors), are some very interesting numbers. The WEF has compiled survey data from 140 countries estimating the attitude of each countries' population toward foreign visitors.

The results, mapped out above, seem significant beyond just tourism. Red countries are less welcoming to foreign visitors, according to the data; blue countries are more welcoming. Click the map (or here) to enlarge the image.

The WEF gathered the data from late 2011 through late 2012 by asking respondents, "How welcome are foreign visitors in your country?" The WEF explains that the survey results are meant to help "measure the extent to which a country and society are open to tourism and foreign visitors."

According to the data, the top three most welcoming countries for foreigners are, in order: Iceland, New Zealand and Morocco. Other high-ranking countries include the rich and peaceful of the Western world (Ireland, Canada, Austria), a few tourist havens (Thailand, United Arab Emirates), and, for some reason, big parts of West Africa.

The three countries least welcoming to foreigners are, in order: Bolivia, Venezuela and Russia. Other poorly ranked countries include the more troubled states of the greater Middle East (Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia), Eastern Europe and two East Asian states I was very surprised to see so near the bottom: China and South Korea.

Part of what makes these data so interesting is that there is no easy "grand unifying theory" that I can see, no single variable that explains the outcomes. It's not wealth or GDP per capita: that would not explain why South Korea ranks so low, or the variance among rich Western states. It's certainly not the number of foreign visitors: the mid-ranking United States and low-ranked China have some of the world's highest rates of foreign tourism.

If anything, maybe what's interesting about this map is the degree to which it seems to cut against common American perceptions of the world. Although there are definitely some Middle Eastern states in the red here, the region actually scores pretty well. Tourism-friendly Morocco is no surprise, but you might not have expected to see Yemen ranked above Sweden and Belgium.

Western Europe is generally friendly toward foreigners but, perhaps because of the touchy politics around immigration there, ranks alongside much of sub-Saharan Africa. The United States, the land of the Statue of Liberty and "give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," ranks 102nd out of 140 countries, well below much of the Middle East.

One thing I'm struck by, in trying to puzzle out this map, is the apparent correlation between unfriendliness to foreigners and nationalism. That would maybe help to explain the low ratings for China and South Korea (although there are other possible factors here, including race) and for Russia. It might also help to explain why the United States, Germany and Japan -- three countries with strongly nationalist histories -- rank below other wealthy nations.

The nationalism theory makes a bit more sense when we look region-to-region. In Latin America, for example, a region generally friendly to foreigners, three countries stand out: Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. All three have governments that could be fairly described as nationalistic. It also makes some sense in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia and Iran rank poorly among countries that generally court foreign tourism.

But there are reasons to think my theory might be wrong: it doesn't explain why Denmark, a rich Western European country, is so much redder than its neighbors, for example; nor does it explain the variation in southern Africa.

What do you think explains the trends on this map? Weigh in somewhere in the comments or on Twitter/Facebook, and I'll try to pull in any interesting theories.

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