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 Traveler is "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.

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