The World's Most Tolerant Countries—UPDATED 2021
With antidemocratic movements on the rise, it can seem like the world is becoming a less welcoming place. That outcome would be entirely at odds with the most rewarding type of travel, which has little to do with snapping selfies and a lot to do with bridging gaps between cultures and diving into the unfamiliar. At Frommer's, one of our core values is, as company founder Arthur Frommer puts it in a note that appears in all of our guidebooks, to foster a "community of friends, where all human beings live in harmony and peace."
Fortunately, there are still plenty of places across the globe where differences are respected and personal freedom is a matter of course. Taking a number of factors into account, we’ve come up with a top 10 of the world’s most tolerant countries. Some of them might surprise you.
We’re guessing this one doesn’t surprise you at all. In 2020, Canada ranked among the top 10 nations on both the Social Progress Index and the personal freedom rankings of the Legatum Prosperity Index (on which Canada ranked 14th overall). The former scores countries on how well they meet basic human needs, provide access to opportunity, and create a foundation for well-being; Legatum's personal freedom category measures rights and social tolerance. So any way you look at it, Canada is a standout when it comes to liberal values. Less prone to upheaval than its noisy southern neighbor, the True North Strong and Free has adopted multiculturalism as official policy and repeatedly reaffirmed the value of immigration. Leave it to Canada to make politeness and hospitality the laws of the land—and the population seems to be on board. Even as the rest of the world grows less welcoming to migrants, a 2019 Gallup survey found Canada to be the most accepting. The country's unparalleled natural grandeur is an added bonus for visitors.
Pictured above: Toronto's Monument to Multiculturalism
When Pope Francis visited this little Balkan nation in 2014, he said the rest of the world could learn a lot from how Muslims and Christians peacefully coexist here. A 2018 study by the United Nations Development Programme backed up the pontiff's assertion, concluding that "Albanians consider religious tolerance to be a fundamental value." More than half of the country’s three million inhabitants identify as Muslim, but Albania is remarkably unified across religions, with minarets and steeples rising from the same neighborhoods and adherents of both faiths mingling at feasts and festivals. To see this spirit of harmony firsthand, visit during the Day of the Blessed Water in January, when participants plunge into frigid lakes, rivers, and the sea in search of submerged crosses. It’s officially a Christian event, but it’s likely you’ll see a Muslim diver come up with the crucifix.
Owing to the strategic location of the Netherlands and the region's long-maintained prominence in trade and commerce, people from all over have been passing through these parts and trying to figure out how to accommodate one another for centuries. All that practice must pay off, because the country consistently scores high marks on the Legatum Prosperity Index (#6 overall in 2020) for promoting and protecting personal freedom. That has helped make pretty, canal-lined Amsterdam the undisputed world capital of cannabis tourism and, in some circles, given the city a reputation as an overtouristed Gomorrah with tulips. The truth, though, is that the Netherlands' live-and-let-live attitude is a crucial part of its legacy, strong economic well-being, and continuing appeal.
The highest-ranking South American nation in studies measuring social progressiveness is often the continent’s second-smallest country by geography, Uruguay (only Suriname is smaller). While other places in Latin America have struggled under political despots, religious oppression, and widespread violence, Uruguay has quietly become, since the mid-1980s, a bastion of peace and prosperity. Social attitudes are relaxed when it comes to everything from marijuana to same-sex marriage, both of which are legal. Along with its welcoming attitude, Uruguay offers visitors peaceful beaches, charming villages, and vibrant nightlife in the capital city, Montevideo.
Pictured above: Montevideo Carnival parade
Though no postcolonial country has a spotless record when it comes to relations with native peoples, New Zealand has gone further than most toward embracing rather than suppressing the indigenous Maori, whose customs and heritage are protected by government decree and celebrated in ways large and small. Maori wood carvings, canoes, and other artifacts are on display at the Auckland Museum and Wellington’s Te Papa Tongarewa; the Maori language is preserved everywhere from place names to the currency to the ubiquitous greeting of kia ora; and at cultural centers like Te Puia in Rotorua (pictured above), visitors can learn traditional dances, watch carvers and tattoo artists at work, and dine on meals cooked underground using the same geothermal activity that produces the region’s many geysers and hot springs.
When South Africa finally emerged in 1994 from the officially enforced racial divisions of the apartheid era, the country’s new constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. Later, South Africa became the first nation on the continent to legalize same-sex marriage—and at the moment, it’s still the only one to have done so. While opinion polls and the experiences of LGBTQ South Africans suggest that social acceptance has lagged behind legal protections, the government approved a bill in late 2020 that strengthened the same-sex marriage law, removing a provision that allowed civil officials to refuse to preside over unions they found objectionable. The country’s welcoming and relatively stable reputation, along with its nature preserves, vineyards, and cosmopolitan cities, have made it a go-to choice for international travelers looking to check stuff off their bucket lists.
Pictured above: attendees at an LGBTQ Pride Parade in Johannesburg
Ireland’s welcoming spirit is legendary. But it goes beyond back-slapping over Guinness in Dublin pubs. The Irish land in the top tier on surveys measuring the acceptance of migrants, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ folks. And while fellow anglophones the Brits have pulled up stakes in the EU, Ireland remains committed to the ideal of a unified continent. To experience the island’s pure, unadulterated friendliness for yourself, find a genuine small-town traditional music session at a proper Irish pub. All you have to do is buy a pint, find a seat (if it’s next to a peat fire, so much the better), and wait. You’ll be a local in no time.
Generally speaking, a country tends to grow more tolerant as its wealth increases. There are exceptions, however—countries whose commitment to rights and equality outperform their GDP. A longtime exemplar of that phenomenon is Costa Rica, noted by the Social Progress Index for outperforming peers with similar economies (such as Mexico, Thailand, and Argentina) when it comes to political rights, personal freedoms, and inclusiveness. Though not an especially rich nation, Costa Rica has been providing for the education and well-being of its people since the 19th century, and that investment has resulted in a progressive populace today. Travelers can also thank past governments for protecting Costa Rica’s incredible biodiversity, which encompasses everything you’d want in a Central American paradise, including beaches, jungles, volcanoes, hot springs, and colorful flora and fauna.
Pictured above: traditional dancers at a cultural event in the town of Quepos
Once a byword for genocide, Rwanda has steadily improved its ranking in the Global Peace Index from the Institute for Economics & Peace, which lauded the East African nation in 2019 as a model of "post-conflict recovery." In the quarter-century since the violence, Rwanda has made efforts to fight government corruption, achieve gender equality, and heal the wounds of the past. That doesn't mean the horrors of 1994 have been covered over: The Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital city not only pays tribute to the 250,000 Tutsi people interred there (some photos of victims on display at the center are pictured above), but also provides historical context and detailed documentation as educational tools to help prevent such atrocities in the future. A growing emphasis on tourism has spurred the protection and promotion of Rwanda’s considerable natural splendors, including one of the only places left where you can see mountain gorillas in the wild.
Collectively, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are the gold standard for tolerance—not to mention the gold standard for clean modernist design. The three countries land in the top spots in the personal freedom/social tolerance category of the 2020 Legatum Prosperity Index (overall, they're in the top four, with Switzerland), while the 2020 Social Progress Index measuring citizens' freedoms and well-being puts Norway first, Denmark second, and Sweden fifth. To a large degree, the high scores are a testament to the Scandinavian welfare state, which has made residents, according to numerous studies, some of the happiest, healthiest, most forward-thinking folks on earth. (Go ahead and throw in the culturally and climatically similar Finland and Iceland, which also do well in these rankings.)
It seems fitting that countries with compassionate politics pointing toward a progressive future should have attractions that balance cozy settings and sci-fi landscapes—and sure enough, the hygge of snug firesides and cable-knit sweaters in Scandinavia's fishing villages and coastal cities sits amid a natural backdrop of steaming lagoons, eerie glaciers, and night skies aglow with the northern lights. It’s like another world that adheres to the best ideals of this one.
Pictured above: northern lights over the fishing village of Hamnoy