It's time to rethink those annual travel lists

'52 Places to Go' in a Pandemic

Before I start in on criticizing those annual travel lists that everyone seems to love, let me confess that I love them too. The moment the New York Times drops its gargantuan “52 Places to Go” list in January each year, I’m already clicking away, reading up on places I’ve been to (to see if they got it right) and the many more I’ve never been to (and some I’ve never even heard of) to let my inner-adventurer roam around a little.

The Times' list doesn’t get all the love. Some of my other favorites include National Geographic’s “Best Trips to Take,” Fodor’s “Go List,” and Lonely Planet’s own “Best Destinations to Visit.” There are many more. I’ve even imitated the format on my own blog for an annual post I call the “Ten Places to Visit (if you happen to write a blog on Central Europe).

With the coronavirus lockdown on travel, though, my 2020 list is in shambles and the same can be said for all the other ones too. The only place on my list I could get to right now if my life depended on it (besides Mikulov in the Czech Republic) is Minsk -- which strangely still has direct flights to Prague. Coronavirus is now sadly spreading throughout Belarus too, so I'm not likely to travel there any time soon.

As the pandemic has brought travel to a halt, there’s been a lot of talk within the industry of using this pause constructively to re-imagine travel in order to make it less of a commodity and more sustainable and responsible. Maybe the virus has given us space to reshape and improve how we write about it as well. We could start, perhaps, by scaling back on these annual lists.

As fun as those lists are to read and to drool over, it's hard not to get the feeling that somewhere along the line they went off the rails. At some point, they got hijacked by the marketing departments and transformed into franchises in their own right. They became vehicles for driving clicks and boosting ad tie-ins with destination marketing organizations and travel companies. And, in their own small way, they helped to contribute to that over-touristed, over-Instagrammed world that none of us -- even those who love and champion travel -- want to return to. Let me explain.

What's Wrong With The Lists

My first objection and maybe the main one is that these lists encourage us, at least subconsciously, to think of travel in terms of quantity, and not quality. Fifty-two places here, twenty here, ten more over there. I know that’s not the idea (no one expects you take 52 trips in a year), but the stories reinforce the notion that travel is ultimately a numbers game -- and the higher the number, the better.

There may be a simple fix here. Instead of fetishizing numbers, the New York Times and other publishers might instead focus on one place each week (or each month). The story could be a deep dive into all aspects of a particular place and help to reinforce the idea that getting to know one place well is better than knowing 10 places superficially. This approach would enable the publications to retain the image of being comprehensive, while allowing for a more satisfying treatment of each place.

The lists also help to create an impression of travel as some kind of fashion statement. Part of the lure of these lists is to see which places have become “hot” in the view of the editors and which have somehow fallen out favor. Destinations come in and go out of fashion -- like skinny jeans or Ed Hardy tees -- depending on the list and the year.

One year it might be Buenos Aires, Sarajevo and Pittsburgh that take their places as “it” cities (and there’s always an off-beat choice -- Pittsburgh??). The next year, three different cities take their place. The effect is to create an artificial herd demand for some destinations and to lend a quality of disposability to others.

I could go on, but I’ll wrap up with one last argument, and this one has to do with sustainability -- or at least the appearance of sustainability. After all, once the pandemic lifts, we'll still be stuck with our climate and environmental issues. A unique wrinkle to the Times’ travel list is that, after the list is compiled, they then send a reporter on a year-long trip to all 52 destinations. Readers are invited to take part, vicariously, in a madcap, modern-day remake of “Around the World in Eighty Days.” A big part of the fun is to imagine how one person could pull it all off.

I don’t want to demean the immense organizational and personal skills that go into undertaking a trip like this, and I realize the carbon footprint of one traveler is minuscule when measured against the planet, but consider for a moment the example it sets. If such a whirlwind journey is good enough for a reporter, then why not a reader? Take it a step further and try to imagine the disaster if we all decided to make such a trip, or even part of such a trip. At a time when we're all urged to count every carbon calorie, it feels tone deaf.

Do They Get Something Right?

The best reason I can think of in favor of these lists is that they help to shine a light on destinations that are worthy of visitors but might not get the attention they deserve. I''ll try to illustrate this with a couple of my own comical experiences with these lists while working as a writer for Lonely Planet.

The way the process works at LP, each year writers and editors are invited to nominate their favorite places for consideration. Once the actual selections have been made, though, the contents become a closely held secret among a very small number of people. More than once I’ve been working on a destination that’s been selected for a "best list" without the slightest idea of what’s going on.

The craziest example of this was one morning in 2013. I was padding around my kitchen in Prague, making coffee, when my phone rang. On the other end was a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office in the small Czech city of Olomouc. She was breathlessly telling me how thrilled city hall was that Lonely Planet had just named Olomouc to its “Top 10 Travel Destinations in Europe” list and could she please patch me through to the mayor, who’d like to thank me personally.

I was caught completely flat-footed. I managed to stammer out “how wonderful that was and, yes, we really do love Olomouc,” but I honestly didn’t know what she was talking about (and how did the mayor even get my phone number?). I politely suggested they contact Lonely Planet’s communications office in London for more information.

A couple of years later, I had a similar experience traveling in Moldova, which Lonely Planet had just selected to that same list of "best" European destinations. The distinction was regarded locally as a huge achievement for a country with such a small tourism footprint. I’d previously written on Moldova for LP, but this time around I was in Chişinău, the capital, to research a story for Foreign Policy magazine and was totally out of the loop on the “best destination” selection.

Word spread quickly, though, that a “Lonely Planet author” was in town, and I was suddenly bombarded with interview requests from local print and TV journalists. I consulted with LP communications in London, and they instructed me to forward everything to them, which I did.

To this day, many people in Moldova still think I’m personally responsible somehow for the country receiving this recognition. To them (and to the good people of Olomouc as well) I say: “You’re welcome and well-deserved!” For both of these places, making a “best list” had definitely been a big deal.

'Ten Places Where You Won't Get Sick'

In the end, the pandemic itself may make the issue moot of what to do with these travel lists. Whatever happens with the virus, international travel in 2021 is unlikely to be completely unrestricted, and I’m curious how the various publications will handle this.

Maybe they’ll respond creatively by building lists tailored to specific audiences or countries: “52 Places Where Americans (or Germans or Brits) Can Still Travel” or “Ten Places That Really Need Your Post-Covid Support.” Those kinds of travel lists I could certainly get behind; the old lists, though, I could easily live without.


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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist, travel writer and author who’s lived in Central Europe for nearly three decades. I love the history, literature, culture and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

And that’s my aim with this website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

My Book: ‘Čas Proměn’

In 2021, I published “Čas Proměn” (“Time of Changes”), my first book of historical nonfiction. The book, written in Czech, is a collection of stories about Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early ‘90s, including memories of the thrilling anti-communist revolutions of 1989. The idea for the book and many of the tales I tell there were directly inspired by this blog. Czech readers, find a link to purchase the book here. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker