Which is the country you love the best?

SO THE readers of Conde Nast Traveller magazine say that Australia is their favourite country in the world, followed narrowly by New Zealand. This is according to their readers' survey, published last week, detailing the favourite hotels, resorts, car rental agencies, airlines etc of that discerning kind of traveller who reads their magazine.

To quibble, I should say that what the survey really reveals is that people whose favourite country is Australia love it more fanatically than people whose favourite country is elsewhere (perhaps they are less discerning?). But I won't get bogged down in statistics. What catches my imagination is the very concept of a "top 25" list of countries.

Partly this is because the practice of rating countries according to their desirability as tourist commodities has such unfortunate connotations. We are all guilty: "Yeah, Greece was nice. But not as nice as my waterproof trekking boots." It is as though the unique combination of people, history, landscape, cuisine and climate that constitute a country are, in fact, the carefully nurtured formula of a committee of the local tourist board, originally set up in the seventh millennium BC. In the case of popular countries, it suggests that BSkyB might buy them - let that be a warning to Australia and New Zealand.

On the other hand, it makes a change from ranking countries according to their Gross Domestic Product. Germany and Japan fail to make the top 25 at all. Russia and China don't make it either, for all their population and land and nuclear weapons. Oddly enough, I am rather partial to all four of those unpopular giants, though this is nothing to do with their industrial might. Perhaps I just happen to like countries with long, horrible histories.

It is not that Conde Nast Traveller's list actually humiliates countries by publishing the bottom end of the table: the countries most disliked by travellers. If such a list were published, one assumes that the least fortunate countries in the world - Afghanistan, Algeria and Iraq spring to mind - would be near the top of it. Hardly fair game.

But even within the lucky top 25 best-loved countries, there are undoubtedly winners and losers. Australia and New Zealand may have pulled off an antipodean double, but what about the pre-election favourites such as France or the US?

Forget them. Thailand is our third favourite country. And of all the countries in Europe, clean but just-slightly-dull little Austria comes in highest, at number four, one spot ahead of South Africa. The US is nowhere, down at number 10, just behind Malaysia. Looking even further down the list, the former great powers of Europe have shrunk to the status of minnows: the UK is down to number 14, behind Zimbabwe and level with Ireland, while France, incredibly, does not even make the top 20.

What? France is less loved than, say, Argentina, which manages to sneak in at number 19? For some reason this gets my hackles up, which proves what a sensitive business rating countries can be. After all, I'm not even French, I just happen to live nearby. I can only assume that the people who selected France as their favourite country did not rave about it with the same mindless extravagance as those undiscerning beef-eaters who chose, say, Argentina.

Still, to each their taste. While travelling in China I discovered that the one country in the world which all Chinese particularly long to visit is Switzerland. For the sake of the Swiss, I hope they do not all travel at the same time.

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