For the second year in a row, Charleston was named the top city in the United States and Canada by Travel + Leisure magazine. The travel mag also declared Charleston the No. 2 city in the world behind Kyoto, Japan. These are heady honors for which this city should be justifiably proud. But the receipt of such lofty rankings almost always raises the question: If Charleston really is the second best travel destination in the world, how did we get here? And why?
Travel + Leisure's "World's Best Awards" are the result of a survey taken by Travel + Leisure readers. The magazine does not say how many readers were surveyed, nor does it comment on their special expertise in evaluating cities. Presumably, anyone who reads the magazine could go online and vote. We really don't know if 1,000 readers voted or 10,000 did. And we don't know if anyone voted twice. Little details like this make a difference when you consider that Kyoto only beat us out by three one-hundredths of a point. (Kyoto received a score of 90.21 in the rankings while Charleston received 90.18.)
What if someone at the Kyoto Ministry of Tourism was really smart and told everyone in their circle to vote in the poll and give Kyoto the highest score possible? If 100 people did that, might that not count for three hundredths of a point depending on the overall survey size? Even if we dismiss the possibility that readers partial to a particular city could nudge the rankings in their favor, how do we know the readers that voted are even qualified to rank one city over another? Can anyone really give Charleston a higher subjective ranking than Paris, Barcelona, Rome, or Vancouver unless they have visited all five cities? Do we know how many of the voters visited any of the supposedly lesser cities prior to casting their vote?
Travel + Leisure does not give this information about how the survey is conducted, and in a sense it really doesn't matter. Just as U.S. News & World Report has become the self-appointed guide for which colleges are the best in the nation, Travel + Leisure purports to tell us which are the best cities for travel, based on an informal, unscientific vote of their readers, who may or may not have visited more than a handful of cities on the list.
Rather than telling us Charleston is the best or second best city, here is what the Travel + Leisure survey tells us: Charleston tourism officials have done a hell of a job of marketing the city in trade publications. Readers of the magazine who participate in the survey and who have actually visited Charleston have likely ranked us highly in a number of categories. Most importantly, it tells us as a city that we recognize the tourism industry as a primary economic engine. On some level we have embraced that fact, and we have encouraged the types of activities that have lead to further growth in this sector.
We really should not celebrate being named the second best travel destination in the world without recognizing what that brings to the city, both good and bad. Other cities may be tops in manufacturing, information technology, or banking, but we actively promote ourselves as a tourist destination. We should remember this the next time we curse cruise ship traffic or get stuck behind a horse-drawn carriage. When a city markets itself as a destination to tourists all over the world, it shouldn't be a surprise when they actually come.