This is the sixth annual survey of destination stewardship to appear in Traveler. Conducted by the National Geographic Society's Center for Sustainable Destinations, it revisits some of the iconic places we first surveyed in 2003 and rated in April 2004. We also threw in a few new destinations to keep things interesting.
The condition of any destination is a mix of what local governments, residents, and businesses can control—pollution, cultural quality and authenticity, tourism management—and what they can't, such as natural disasters and global economic meltdowns. After more than five years, how have the scores changed?
At first glance the survey method may seem less than exact. We contact as many experts in pertinent fields as we can and ask them to rate the places they know. We then average their scores and publish the results. But statistical experience shows that group judgment can be surprisingly accurate—the "wisdom of crowds" effect. In 2003, when we conducted our first survey and had about 200 experts on the survey panel, the top-scoring destination was the Norwegian Fjords area, the lowest Spain's Costa del Sol. This year's 437 panelists, fewer than a hundred of whom participated in our 2004 survey, gave the highest and lowest scores to—trumpets, please—the Norwegian Fjords and the Costa del Sol. The only difference? The fjords rated even higher than before (85 versus 82), while the infamous, hotel-lined "Costa del Concrete" dipped lower (31 versus 41).
If there is any pattern in scores for the retested destinations, and panelist comments about them, it is this: When people care about the condition of a place, its score tends to go up and stay there. For destinations that gained at least five points—on a survey like this, smaller moves aren't very significant—panelists cited initiatives to protect (Serengeti, up 10; mid-coast California, up 8), to restore (Hue, up 11), to improve facilities (Rajasthan, up 8), or combined efforts (Copán, up 7; Cappadocia, up 8).
But when people see a place as a tourism cash cow, scores tend to slip (Ha Long Bay, down 5 since 2006; the Inside Passage in Alaska and British Columbia, down 7 in five years; the Grenadines, down a troubling 17 in two years). Panelists docked five of the seven "Bottom Rated" places—and many of those "In Trouble"—for reckless development and commercialization.
If there is a blessing to the global economic downturn, it is the respite from such rampant, quick-buck degradation of Earth's remaining beautiful places. The break will be only temporary, however, unless the places at risk—and the people who visit them—learn from the places that care. —J.B.T.