Why is there such a geographic variety in hospitality?

On the website of the Dutch travel TV program 3 op Reis I’ve recently started watching all the episodes I’ve missed since the start of the program. The program captured my interest since I zapped to it accidentally a few weeks ago. Right now I’m at episode fifteen of the first season, of five seasons with 110 episodes in total so far. In the first season the presenter Floortje Dessing makes a long journey from Amsterdam to Bhutan through Europe and Asia. When she leaves Europe and Asia I notice that the population is much more hospitable to her. When she leaves Ukraine and arrives in Georgia, she is given breads for free by a baker. Later in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and and especially Iran she receives gifts and is invited for dinner or parties even more often. Of course I’ve merely seen fifteen episodes of the first season and a few more of the last season of only one travel program so far, but I detect a general tendency that some Asian cultures are much more hospitable than Western cultures. The question if that is indeed the case prompted me to write this post.

From my personal experience I remember when I was on vacation with my family in the west of the USA, in Zion National Park. When we stopped our car along the road in the middle of nowhere to enjoy the scenery, two cars drove by. Both stopped, with one driver taking our photo because he noticed us taking photos and another driver because he was concerned our car might have broken down. But I’ve experienced generous hospitality even more in Nepal: I was invited to weddings and dinners often and I was even given a place to sleep for free in a private home by Uttam and Meena. But, being such a rational person I’m not going to trust my and other’s anecdotal evidence alone, so I fired up Google Scholar. It was a bit difficult to find studies on the subject because unrefined and even more refined search terms return articles on the hospitality industry, but after filtering I read two interesting articles.

In a study of the hospitality of the Jordanian Balga Bedouin, Shryock (2004) writes that for these (formerly) nomadic people, hospitality was/is a means of public security. They are hospitable to strangers because they might one day be strangers themselves in need of hospitality when they have traveled for a long distance and are in need of food and a place to sleep. It is like a tax they voluntarily accept from each other, comparable to the Golden Rule they treat others how they would like to be treated themselves. Yet, the hospitality in its purest form is disappearing because now there is a government which imposes taxes and provides social security, among other influences of modernization. In the past hospitality served as a substitute for government (p. 48–51). But still, hospitality has it’s uses. Hospitality should impress your guests who will then spread the word about your hospitality, increasing your reputation (p. 36–37). A greater reputation gives you fame and influence. (p. 54-–55). While Shryock’s article is behind a paywall, you can read a shorter news article explaining his findings more briefly.

Lashley (2008) combines multiple social science perspectives to explain hospitality. He describes a common theme of religious and cultural factors as motives for hospitality (p. 71–72). In the studies he cites reciprocity is a red thread. What is very interesting is how people from a remote tribe in Indonesia invite tourists to their celebrations, even though the tourists are not able to offer reciprocal hospitality (because tourists stay for only a short time). They do not feel there is a lack of reciprocity however, because tourists bring news from the outside world and feel honored by the presence of tourists (p. 74). But there is also much discussion about what genuine hospitality is. Another scientist is cited who argues that genuine hospitality is fueled by altruism, which includes the following motives (p. 75):

  • the desire to please others, stemming from general friendliness and benevolence or from affection for particular people; concern or compassion;
  • the desire to meet another’s need;
  • a desire to entertain one’s friends or to help those in trouble;
  • a desire to have company or to make friends, and the desire for the pleasures of entertaining – what we may call the wish to entertain as a pastime.

The paper ends with a conclusion mentioning that cultural and religious obligations to be hospitable no longer have a weaker moral force in mature industrialized societies (p. 83).

I think the hospitality given to me by Uttam and Meena definitely falls in the category of genuine hospitality. Since then I’ve had a desire to offer them hospitality in return, but that’s not realistic because it’s unlikely I will meet them again in the near future. I probably have done something in return for their hospitality already by doing volunteer work in their country and helping Meena with teaching English. But if I can’t offer it to them, I can offer it to others. As soon as I’ll move out of my parent’s house (maybe this year or the next) and get my own place to live, I intend to sign up for CouchSurfing so I can provide others with hospitality.


Lashley, C. (2008). Studying hospitality: Insights from social sciences. Scandinavian Journal of Hospitality and Tourism, 8(1), 69–84.
Shryock, A. (2004). The new Jordanian hospitality: House, host, and guest in the culture of public display. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 46(1), 35–62.

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