The New York Times’ list of best places to visit relies on a lame travel-writing habit

Here, there, and everywhere.
Here, there, and everywhere.
Image: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic
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With each new year, America’s wander-lusters and wannabe travel bloggers wait with bated breath for the New York Times “52 Places to Go” list. This year’s list, which was released last week, is no different. With stunning 360 videos and insight provided by Times correspondents from all over the world, it is a tool as useful for vacation-planning as it is daydreaming at one’s desk on a mid-winter’s day.

But there’s one detail that is a little odd.

The top ten locations present somewhat distorted scope. New Orleans, Louisiana takes the top spot, and other individual cities such as Cincinnati, Ohio (#8) and Glasgow, Scotland (#10) also feature. But also in the top 10 are entire countries, including Colombia (#2) Bhutan (#9) as well as an entire collection of countries, the Caribbean (#4).

To a casual American reader hoping to find travel inspiration, this huge range in geographic scale—which persists throughout the list—may not matter. But it’s hard not to feel that the locations that are allowed the least amount of specificity are getting a lesser version of the dream-destination spotlight.

The jarring jump from an American city in the top spot to an entire South American country in the second leaves me wondering: Is there no one city in Colombia that’s as nice to visit as New Orleans? It also is a practice that would be unlikely to fly in any other section of the paper. A politics article on A1, for example, wouldn’t just describe an event as occurring in Lithuania (which is #36 on the list); it would surely name the city in that country in which something happened.

To be fair, the list also highlights cities or specific destinations across every continent (except Antarctica), making it clear that the Times has been thoroughly globally-minded in their approach. The multi-scaled approach is also not a new practice. Monica Drake, formerly the travel editor and now the assistant managing editor at the Times, noted that a prior version of the list even included outer space as a go-to destination. Drake explained in an email to Quartzy that the editors “go broad when we feel that a lot is happening across a large area that makes it a draw for tourists,” leading to variation in the scale of suggested destinations.

And indeed, the centennial in Estonia (#16), for example, means there is a definitive and widespread moment in 2018 that warrants wholesale inclusion. Meanwhile, the small size of the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, (#22) may make it feasible to visit the whole nation on a single trip.

But ultimately the Times’ published insight into its methodology doesn’t explicitly justify to the reader why a place as specific as Disney Springs, Florida (#41) is as valid a place to visit as the entire Caribbean region. Nor does the UK’s Guardian, for that matter, which released a similar list which mixes entire countries, like Uganda, and cities, like Paris, as places to go in 2018. And thus, lists like these can swerve uncomfortably close to an outdated travel trope that doesn’t grant far-off, exotic places the same degree of granularity and nuance that we allow places that are familiar and close to home.

Why does this matter? While modern travel writing is hugely popular as a genre, it’s important to remember that the entire practice has problematic roots. The writing of colonial-era explorers like Henry Stanley, Rudyard Kipling, and David Livingstone communicated to readers that the “marvels and challenges of the world existed to reflect glory back on its conquerors.” In recent years, the damaging legacy of work like Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent has spawned projects like Africa is a Country and Everyday Africa, which point out the multiplicity of human life and culture on the continent—rather than the animal-centric safaris and game lodges that the tourism industry often puts front and center.

The practice also raises a question of identity. Why are the people, places, and things of Montgomery, Alabama (#49) or Downtown Denver, Colorado (#30) afforded a distinct and nuanced identity, when the differing people and places of Colombia and Bhutan aren’t? And then there’s the quality of advice the practice results in: Surely there are cities and regions of Fiji, Colombia, Bhutan, Iceland, Lithuania, Estonia, and the Caribbean that are more worth visiting than others in the coming year? Judging by the Times’ list, a reader wouldn’t necessarily know that.

Like many travelers, I enjoy scrolling through the New York Times’ list each year. And like nearly every other journalist I know, I’m intensely jealous of their newly-hired correspondent, who is traveling to all 52 places. But I’m also aware that, like any person who travels for leisure with a powerful passport, I read the travel section from a perch of privilege and relative power.

As Elif Batuman eloquently put it in Granta, travel writers have a distinct responsibility when it comes to writing about places other people may never visit: “In describing and moving through these landscapes, the only real recourse we have against charges of exploitation or tone-deafness is to bring as much empathy and as wide a consciousness as we can manage.”

In this case, I think that wider consciousness should beget more specific recommendations.