Travel Scorecard—How Traveler Rated 115 Top Spots

Mike Hume
for National Geographic Traveler
March 5, 2004
The cover story of the March issue of National Geographic
is "href=""
target="_new">Destination Scorecard," based on a first-of-its-kind
survey that rates 115 places to reveal "which of the world's great
destinations remain great and which may be in trouble." Here, the
article's author, Jonathan B. Tourtellot, gives the inside story of how
the magazine separated what it calls "the good," "the not so bad," and
the "getting ugly."

What exactly is the destination-stewardship index?

The destination-stewardship index is based on a survey that is, to our knowledge, the first of its kind ever conducted. Popular places today are subject to a variety of pressures—development, pollution, globalization, mass tourism.

We wanted to get a measure of how well destinations are taking care of themselves in terms of sustainability, environmental health, and preservation of the distinctive character that makes each worth visiting. That's a very complex question, so we decided to ask over 200 specialists in various disciplines relating to sustainable tourism and destination stewardship to evaluate the integrity of 115 destinations around the world. They assessed each place with which they were familiar on the basis of six criteria: environment, cultural integrity, historic preservation, aesthetics, tourism management, and—what I think is the most important criterion—the outlook for the future.

The destinations were scored on a 0 to 100 scale, and it's important to note that this is not the same scale you were scored on in high school. The very highest score was 82, the lowest was 41. Any place that's 63 or above can call itself above average.

How did this project come about?

Well, attempts have been under way for several years—some successful, some less so—to certify places on indicators of environmental performance. Environmental quality is incredibly important, but we need as well to look at those other aspects of what makes a place appealing and distinctive.

To evaluate the entire character of a destination goes beyond what you can measure quantifiably. Some things, like environmental quality, is quantifiable. How much pollution is getting in the water? That's easy to assess. But what about intangibles like aesthetics and cultural integrity?

When you're sizing up the holistic character of a destination, those quantifiable measures can help in reaching an informed judgment, but it does have to be a judgment. So we decided to measure the perceptions of a large, well-traveled, informed group of experts.

It's like the judges at the Olympics. In addition to the athlete's measurable accomplishments, they have to also evaluate such aspects as style and form. In a way, that applies to destination stewardship as well.

Why shouldn't the low-scoring destinations simply disregard this poll as a matter of opinion?

It may seem a bit fallible in that it's based on independent judgments, but when taken collectively it stands up quite well. And if you look at who the panelists are and what their professions are, even if you disagree with some of the ratings, you can see that this index deserves serious consideration.

How have the top scorers held up to the threats better than the low scorers?

Some top scorers simply have fewer pressures to cope with, by dint of challenging climate or accessibility. Quite a few of the top scorers are high because they are hard to get to.

The Norwegian and Chilean Fjords aren't sunny beaches, so they aren't as likely to be overdeveloped. But some locations are heavily touristed, such as New Zealand's South Island. In fact New Zealand as a whole has developed a good reputation in destination stewardship.

So accessibility isn't the only differentiating factor between the high and low scorers?

Absolutely not. What distinguishes top scorers with a heavy stream of tourists—two examples being Tuscany in Italy and Vermont here in the States—is a real, grassroots appreciation by residents for the character of their locale, and a determination to protect it. Both Vermont and Tuscany are careful about the aesthetics of their countrysides, and policy decisions are based on that awareness.

One reason Vermont scored high is because of billboard control there. That makes Vermont look good.

Our Geotourism Study (read related story) showed that 80 percent of U.S. travelers consider beautiful scenery important. It doesn't take much to figure out that plastering the roadways with billboards will not improve scenic attractiveness.

What advice would you give to the low-scoring destinations?

Well, this is an initial score, a benchmark. There are ways to reclaim the character of the destination and restore its integrity and environmental quality.

This index is one way to help these destinations do that and to cover their progress in turning things around. These are the great challenges.

We need to publicize the most successful efforts so that other parts of the world can follow suit. My hope would be that some of the lower scorers would become future poster children for how to improve an overstressed destination.

What are some examples of destinations that have started to turn their ratings around?

Well, it's just beginning. We hope that this survey will put the issue of stewardship on the table.

Most of the low scorers are sun-and-sand destinations, which are the most vulnerable to overbuilding and degradation. One place that began to reverse course is the township of Calvià on Majorca, in Spain's Balearic Islands.

The Balearics had a low score. They're a mass tourist destination, and there was a lot of overbuilding there decades ago. In the recent few years Calvià actually began blowing up some of the worst and ugliest hotels, and brought in a more enlightened urban design to its beachfronts.

Waikiki, which is certainly one of the most intensive urban resort destinations in the world, is rearranging its beachfront buildings to provide a broader outlook to the sea. And also they've initiated programs to bring local people back to the beach. That way, it's not just tourists. You actually get a sense of being in Hawaii and meeting Hawaiians when you go to Waikiki.

Fort Lauderdale, which is profiled in the March Traveler, also combined urban renewal with other innovative programs to reverse its status as a rowdy spring-break destination.

What can travelers do to aid the low-scoring destinations?

I think travelers should sound off when they see something that displeases them about the place that they travel to. That locality needs to hear it. Better still, use the power of your wallet.

Think of every dollar as a vote, and support the businesses and events and services that in turn contribute to the distinctiveness and character of the place. If there's a particularly attractive hotel or a concert that features local music instead of international pop or a restaurant serving great local cuisine, travelers should patronize these places. That sends the signal that "you're doing the right thing."

In short, support the people who support the place.

What do you see as the biggest threat to all of these destinations in the next decade?

The biggest threat is one that we can't really do a whole lot about: too many people trying to look at too few special places. At unique points of interest like Vatican City and Machu Picchu, sheer numbers of visitors pose a huge challenge. We'll need to identify enlightened ways to handle those numbers.

The Acropolis, for instance, did not score particularly well in this survey, but in fact that perception may be a bit out of date. The Greeks have just finished improving the surroundings of the Acropolis in preparation for the Olympics. The new layout may help considerably in coping with the enormous number of people that want to visit, and raise the Acropolis's score.

Seaside areas are also pressure zones. Everyone wants to go to the sea and sit on the beach, and there are only so many beaches to go around. Probably the best way to handle it is through clustering development in such a way that you have some high-intensity zones and some low-intensity zones.

The important thing is not to pave the entire seacoast with hotels and parking lots. That's what brought [Spain's] Costa del Sol in at the bottom of the survey: the loss of the entire coastline there to a wall of hotels. Where development is clustered, the effects are mitigated and you see in places that there's still a beautiful seacoast.

What do you think you will find in a second such survey?

We hope that we'll find improvement. And we're certainly going to do what we can to help.

With the help of National Geographic's Sustainable Tourism Initiative, we expect do more of these surveys and cover more destinations. The purpose of this first destination-stewardship index is to increase awareness, so that future scores overall will drift upward. That's our goal and our hope.

Download destination scores for all 115 destinations. (PDF requires free Adobe Acrobat Reader)

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