Is Bolivia the world's unfriendliest country for tourists?
That's the claim made in this month's report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), which said that the diverse South American nation had the world's most negative attitude toward foreign visitors, making it even more hostile than crime-ridden Venezuela or former Cold War enemy the Russian Federation.
And I'm sorry, folks, but that's just plain whackadoo. I would like to personally challenge the editors of the massive 571 page The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2013, Jennifer Blanke and Thea Chiesa, to get off the couch, stop crunching numbers, and actually get into Bolivia and meet the people.
There are some barriers to easy travel for Americans, primarily the requirement to pay the so-called reciprocity fee to enter Bolivia. However, Bolivians pay the same fee to enter the United States, and other South American nations also charge substantial tit-for-tat fees, including nearby Argentina and Brazil. It makes me feel like the WEF is picking on Bolivia because they're not as large and influential as their neighbors.
CNN's Frances Cha broke out the top 10 supposedly unfriendliest countries from the very dense WEF report. Kuwait, Latvia, and Iran were only a tad less unfriendly than the Russians, while Pakistan, the Slovak Republic, and Bulgaria came in 7th, 8th, and 9th. Bulgaria? Really? I haven't traveled there, but honestly. Have you ever met an unfriendly Bulgarian?
Mongolia rounds out the list, which means that such notoriously angry nations as North Korea didn't even make the cut. Is the propaganda value of a few visitors like Google's Eric Schmidt or Dennis Rodman really worth that much?
Be that as it may, I found the people of Bolivia to be warm and welcoming. When I traveled there to view three of the world's most endangered species of macaws, I could tell that a few locals wondered why anyone would come so far to look at some birds, but they did their best to make the crazy lady happy.
Once a man waved down our tourist vehicle so he could show us the piranha he just caught. He let us take pictures before he released it. I know what you're thinking, but it wasn't a tip hustle either. He just wanted to share his enthusiasm. Another man invited us in to see his rescue work for injured birds and anacondas he found in the wetlands near his home.
Everywhere I went, I was greeted with kindness and respect, and the local people seemed to go the extra mile to make sure I enjoyed their beautiful country.
Now you may be shaking your heads and telling yourself that I somehow blended in perfectly with Bolivian society. Don't laugh, but here's the brutal proof that I was dressed exactly like a tourist is expected to dress. I actually have this picture because the nice Bolivian lady in the photograph wanted to have her picture taken with me in my costume:
Trust me. They spotted me as a tourist from ten miles away, and the sight seemed to make them smile.
The only unfriendly Bolivian I met is the piranha in that photograph I took -- and I think we can all agree that he might have had reasonable cause to feel a little grumpy.
[photos by Elaine Radford]