Norway fjords / Photo: vigour

Does this list surprise you?

Not to be confused with a popularity contest, the 6th annual survey by the National Geographic Society’s Center for Sustainable Destinations highlights 133 worldwide destinations and how they rate in terms of criteria like sustainability, social and cultural integrity, quality of tourism management, and aesthetic quality.

Wait. Aesthetic quality? Social and cultural integrity? I imagine those would be pretty tough to get statistics on. These are, of course, subjective to human experience and not very tangible aspects of place.

So, is the survey a bunch of hogwash?

Costa del Sol / Photo: BY-YOUR-⌘

Well, if you trust the judgment of 437 “well-traveled experts in a variety of fields — historic preservation, site management, geography, sustainable tourism, ecology, indigenous cultures, travel writing and photography, and archaeology”, then I guess the answer would be no.

According to NG, “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…Experts began by posting points of view on each place — anonymously, to ensure objectivity. After reading each others’ remarks — a variation of a research tool called the Delphi technique — panelists then filed their final scores.”

The study was published in the Nov-Dec 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler. The list is bookended by Norway’s Fjords Region as the best-rated (score of 85), and by Spain’s Costa del Sol (score of 31) as the worst-rated. One panelist’s comments about the Fjords Region:

Environmental quality is at the highest level. Landscape is amazing and aesthetically one of the most beautiful. The icons of Norway are so unique that it is difficult to imagine anything else. The local culture can be seen on the shores and mountains. It gives an ideal overview of well-preserved Norwegian rural life.

About Costa del Sol (aka Costa del Concrete), one had this to say:

Creaking under the weight of Brits and Germans who have retired to this southern Spanish coast, Costa del Sol is likely to suffer as the world economic situation causes them to return home.

The area must go more and more down-market to maintain market share (and will do so), but this is an area where volume tourism rules, with little real consideration, it seems, for its impact or need for regulation. Not sustainable.

These two destinations, at opposite ends of the spectrum, occupied the same spots in the first survey (2004), the difference being the Fjords Region now rates even higher than in 2004 and Costa del Sol lower — the best gets better and the worst gets worse.

NG sums up this trend in the survey by saying this: “When people care about the condition of a place, its score tends to go up and stay there.”

Other notable rated destinations

Best-rated

Vermont / Photo: Paraflyer

(81 points) Kootenay/Yoho National Parks, British Columbia – “Low level of development and visitation make these parks relatively unspoiled.”

(78 points) Vermont, USA – The top-rated American destination. “Vermont, more than any other American state, has worked to preserve those qualities and characteristics that make it unique.”

Places in the balance

(62 points) Great Barrier Reef, Australia – “Environmental and ecological quality is suffering due to coral bleaching which stems from a variety of causes, including agricultural runoff and increasing ocean temperatures. Social and cultural integrity is compromised by the impact of European settlements on the indigenous lifestyle.”

(57 points) Santorini, Greece – “One of the most sensational sites in the world. The towns are beautifully maintained. The beach area could be improved. But the island is overrun with tourists and the road is crowded—a bit of a madhouse.”

Worst-Rated Places

Cabo San Lucas / Photo: Jillian2012

(37 points) Cabo San Lucas, Mexico – “A tourism catastrophe. Total focus on money, lack of environmental attention, lack of local benefit except in menial jobs. Entire coast bought up by developers destroying turtle beaches and places that should remain natural and protected. Very little authentic local culture presented.”

(35 points) Bahamas: Grand Bahama – “The selling off of ‘protected’ islands is unconscionable. An unbelievable amount of garbage has washed up on the beaches. ‘Locally produced’ products in the straw markets are a joke; there should be a quality artisan market.”

* Thanks to traveling greener for sending the link my way.

COMMUNITY CONNECTION

What kind of effect might a survey like this have on these destinations? If it drives tourists away from the worst places, will that be incentive for them to “clean up their act”?

Could it have an adverse effect on the top-rated destinations?

Share your thoughts below!