Just How Wrong Can the New York Times BE about Travel?

  • Ethan Gelber
  • 25 January 2009

On 11 January 2009 the New York Times (NYT) published a piece entitled The 44 Places to Go in 2009. The introduction suggests that they are the new year’s ‘most compelling destinations’ and they’re presented in an order of preference ‘recommended’ by the NYT. At the article’s request, readers also voted on their favourites and, with the click of a button, the preferences can be shuffled to reflect readers’ recommendations too.

Reader comments on the article covered fairly predictable ground, lamenting omitted destinations (“Nothing in China? I am a bit surprised.” “Not a single Canadian destination?”), suggesting new ones (“Visit Poland!” “Tanzania? Kenya”?), criticising those on the list (“Dallas? You’ve got to be kidding!” “Beirut? Get real.”), questioning the division into sub-categories (“How is Greece not a cultural option?” “Can someone explain to me how $600 a night in South Africa is ‘frugal’?”) and even challenging the validity and sustainability of the topic (“Honestly, how many working people will be able to afford big vacations this year?” “Do the authors and publishers of travel pieces like this bear responsibility for the environmental damage wrought by those who go?”)

One of my personal favourites is this one: “Please add the category that shows where the jobs are that allow people to spend money to travel. In my world, most of these trips are the equivalent of more than a couple of month’s rent. Call it ‘employo-tourism.’ ”

I won’t add my own very long list of criticisms of the choices offered or of people’s responses. Well, OK, I can’t resist just one: Just how could Buffalo (New York) be the number three people’s recommended destination for 2009? I have nothing against the place, but, really, more appealing than the entire country of South Africa? Please.

Actually, I have another one: Like many of the people who commented, I find the presentation of the list to be incredibly disingenuous. While I can imagine the day when whl.travel will publish its own lists, I will endeavor to be more transparent about our selection criteria and more clear about our original pool being solely our suite of offered destinations.

Then again, I wonder if these lists serve any real purpose or if (as I sometimes suspect) they are really just a commercial obligation put forth as an opinion. Have you ever made a travel choice as a function of such a list (I haven’t)? And, in the end, is it fair for one set of apple destinations to be compared to the orange set and the peach set and the pineapple set? How can you ever measure the comparative merits of ‘A Pennsylvania Farm’ over all of India?

(On an related-but-different note, I find very encouraging how well whl.travel has anticipated this (dubiously accurate) New York Times overview. If you subtract the 10 American and 10 major European destinations (markets into which we have not yet pushed), of the remaining 24, whl.travel has active partners in or near 14 of them, including (in order of NYT preference) Beirut, Qatar (coming), Dakar, Phuket, Marrakech, the Aegean Sea (see Greece and Turkey), Penang (see other destinations in Malaysia), Florianopolis, Boracay, South Africa, India, Madagascar, Tasmania (see other destinations in Australia) and Zambia.)


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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, ex-AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, family travel, keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is editorial director of the Family Travel Association, a co-founder of OutBounding, and tackles content projects for HomeExchange.com and RW Social, which produces the NY Trav Fest. Previously, Ethan was Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, for which he founded and edited The Travel Word (this now-independent blog); publications manager of the French government tourist office (Atout France) in NYC; and helped manage a Paris-based bicycle tour operator.
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7 Responses to “Just How Wrong Can the New York Times BE about Travel?”

  1. I think any top destination list is doomed to public scrutiny online. The very nature of the internet allows us all to voice our opinions, and you will never please everyone, let alone the majority.
    These top lists are usually just a ploy to attract readers and get them talking. Mission accomplished?

  2. zafer says:

    I think NYT (lets say USA)do not want Americans going out of the country. USA wants that the Americans spend their money in US on domestic tourism. I have just counted and saw that 10 of 44 destinations are from America. Almost 23 % (22.7 %) this is some what 1 of 4 destinations. Of course there are nice places to visit in the USA but there are also nice places is the other part of the world.

  3. Adrian says:

    whl also has a partner in Dakar, Senegal (http://www.dakar-travels.com/), another place mentioned on the list. I’d agree with Alanna, I really don’t know how much affect these lists (or other general travel articles) have on tourism to that destination, although I suppose that it does expose certain off-the-beaten-track destinations to people that perhaps had never heard of them before. Maybe an article like this will pique someone’s interest and cause them to research a destination further. But I’d agree with the comments that a lot of these kinds of lists seem to be more self-serving than anything else.

  4. […] Just How Wrong Can the New York Times BE about Travel?: whl.travel discuss the creation of destination lists like those we often see at the end of the year, when companies attempt to dish out their predictions and rankings of popular places to visit.  We’ve thought for a long time that such lists are often purely self-serving and do nothing to quell the ‘tick that box’ culture that has led to the demise of so many destinations around the world. […]

  5. Alanna says:

    NYT makes these lists every January, and I’d be interested to see if the article actually has an impact on tourism in those areas. I visited a couple of their destinations last year (it was on my yearly route), and there was really no change in American tourism in those areas. Perhaps these lists just reflect the articles in the pipe from their writers… setting themes for the next year.

    We all know that travel is really only meaningful if it is relevant to your interests… not the interests of others. Responsible tourism can only occur when you care about the place.

  6. Mark H says:

    Some of the lists are so blatantly advertorial that they make you laugh. And they often seem to be reviewed or described by people who have never been anywhere near the place.

  7. Shaun says:

    Yes makes you wonder who is coming up with the lists?!?!

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