What price a friendly face: who are a country’s local ambassadors?


Tourism officials go to great lengths to promote how friendly their country is to foreign visitors and with good reason: ask someone who has just come back from a holiday to describe their experience and it’s likely that the hospitality they received (or lack of it) will be one of the first things mentioned. It’s something we remember long after our trip is over. But while tourism marketing might emphasise the warm welcome people receive, is that welcome really so good at the critical points at which a smile or scowl is most noticed? Who are the local ambassadors that really matter?

There are probably three parts of a travel experience that are the most important when it comes to people forming an opinion about a nation’s friendliness.

1. Customs and airport security officials 

The United States has long suffered a bad name in this area – I’ve been through US customs many times and have experienced the worst (being treated like an unwelcome pest and receiving a thorough interrogation just for daring to return too soon after a previous entry) and the best (where the TSA staff acted as if they enjoyed their job and treated passengers with courtesy and even humour). It’s not just the US – I still remember visiting Australia 12 years ago and the informal banter we enjoyed when negotiating border formalities in Melbourne. The tiny island of Palau meanwhile gave us a less than happy send-off when security staff did their best to confiscate items of our hand luggage, citing local rules of which we had no knowledge. All minor incidents, but they do leave a lasting impression.

2. Taxi and bus drivers

Taxi drivers the world over have a reputation for being crooked. In many cases it’s fully warranted and the most slippery ones can usually be found loitering outside an airport waiting to prey on unsuspecting and exhausted new arrivals. But I’ve also encountered charming and courteous drivers who have chatted with warmth about their country, offered helpful advice and gone out of their way to help without any hint of a scam.

Bus drivers can be every bit as important a local ambassador as a taxi driver. I remember seeing one driver in Madrid go off on a loud foul-mouthed tirade at a poor young American girl, who committed the heinous crime of presenting him with a €20 note. An apologetic local lady gave her the change and gave the driver a piece of her mind. On the flip side there are those bus drivers with ridiculously sunny dispositions, greeting passengers as if they were long-lost friends, singing as they drive and projecting an infectious air of relaxed contentment that starts a trip off on the right note.

3. Service staff

For many holidaymakers the closest interaction they will have with local people is when they order food or drink. Waiters, waitresses and bar staff may not be trained or given incentives to show their sunniest side to all passing foreigners, but it’s those encounters both good and bad that remain in our memories. If you’ve ever eaten or drank in the same place more than a couple of times during your holiday you’ve probably made a connection with one of the staff, and they will be one of the reasons that you’ve made that place your temporary local. On the other hand, get ripped off by a couple of waiters and it’s easy to dismiss the whole country as a tourist trap and warn others that they need to watch out as the place is full of crooks.


Perhaps tourism authorities need to focus on training the people in these roles to serve as effective local ambassadors, to project the image they’ve inevitably spent millions creating and promoting. Or perhaps it’s better that people continue to act as they are and travellers continue to form their own opinions on where to go to find the warmest welcome.

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Freelance travel writer

One Response to “What price a friendly face: who are a country’s local ambassadors?”

  1. My husband and I have traveled full-time for the past 6 years. Three of those years have been on a sailboat cruising the Pacific coast of Mexico. We have been delighted to discover that Mexicans are among the friendliest people we have met anywhere.

    The shop owners, waiters, cab drivers and folks on the street are uniformly hospitable, kind and will knock themselves out to help you.

    It is routine for a Mexican to accompany us on a walk of several blocks to make sure we get to our destination. They drop what they are doing to take care of us.

    Our alternator broke in Manzanillo, and a guy in line at Auto Zone who saw our plight spent the day with us, driving us in his truck for an hour to get to a good repair shop. He oversaw the entire repair to make sure nothing was lost in the translation between us and the mechanic. (I actually tell the full story here: http://roadslesstraveled.us/manzanillo-bay/)

    When our our outboard engine propeller broke, the machinist who repaired it drove us in his car to a shop on the other side of town so he could get the stainless steel bolts needed to complete the repair. In other countries we would have been instructed to take a cab, buy the part ourselves, and return to the repair shop with the goods.

    Despite the horrible way Mexicans are treated by Americans at the border, none of the Mexicans we met who had been harassed by American authorities ever held it against us as mere American travelers. Some had been jailed and deported and told us stories of unnecessarily poor treatment — but they unfailingly greeted us with warmth and kindness, something we have not found to be true in other countries.

    If you are looking for a travel destination where the locals are truly warm-hearted and generous, visit Mexico!!

    April 3, 2013 at 2:43 pm