Ligaya Malones floating in pool at The Saguaro Hotel in Palm Springs, California
Staycation vibes in Palm Springs, California (photo: Alina Mendoza)

When it comes to vacation planning, there is nothing like the attractive power of a best places to visit list. You know the ones: lists like New York Times’ annual 52 Places to Go, Travel+Leisure’s 50 Best Places to Travel, Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel List and the like. For readers, these lists offers a curated snapshot into the trendiest destinations and a learning opportunity to discover the towns, cities and countries worth traveling for. They can be valuable travel planning tools, even for a travel writer like me, who finds herself in a new destination every month (see: Nashville in January, the Central Coast in April, North Carolina in May.) I enjoy skimming through best-of travel lists; I’ve always discovered several new-to-me destinations every year one of these lists publishes. I’ve also been curious about the process of putting together one of these lists, and more broadly, how does a lesser-known destination jump from obscurity to destination darling? Let’s take a look.

How Does a Destination Make a Best of Travel List?

But, how does a destination even make this sort of list? The truth is that these lists are entirely subjective; there is no standard algorithm top travel publications rely on. Instead, they rely on a number of opinions and recommendations that include editor, reader, and industry input, like tour operators and hotel executives. 

For example, here’s how Travel+Leisure picked their 50 Best Places to Travel in 2019: “We pore over press releases, tourism statistics, and our overflowing spreadsheets of hotel openings, restaurant debuts, and new flight routes before deciding where to go on vacation.” T+L goes on to explain, “We consider the anecdotal evidence: Where are our friends and families going on vacation? What vacation destinations are we seeing on Instagram? Which places seem to be part of today’s travel zeitgeist?

T+L also taps their travel experts, and writes, “we turn to our network of travel experts for vacation ideas — trusted writers, hospitality professionals, the travel advisors that make up T+L’s A-List — to see where people are actually going, and which places are the ones to watch in the coming year.”

In addition to offering the traveler a framework to narrow down their next travel destination, best-of travel lists, especially by reputable, widely read publications have the power (along with advertising, social media, and word of mouth) to attract visitors to a destination.

The Foundry Hotel, Asheville, North Carolina

What’s New and Different Now

After following best of travel lists for years (both as travel enthusiast and writer), there are a few characteristics that underscores each destination highlighted. They are a combination of what is new and different, which is a question I always seek to answer for commissioning editors, and ultimately, readers. There are many wonderful destinations worth writing about, however, there is only so much space in a magazine or digital package (that’s a themed collection of articles, in journo-speak) that only the most timely and relevant destinations—according to each publication’s editorial standards and guidelines—make the cut (which we’ve already established is subjective).

That said, what is the destination’s hook? Or, what will draw readers into the story; what is new and different about Destination X right now? For example, in 2019 Lonely Planet named Miami and Seattle a top city to visit, among international destinations including Zadar, Croatia and Dakar, Senegal. Miami’s growing popularity as a destination for art and design helped them make the list; the narrative was anchored by the opening of a multi-million dollar museum, which gives the pick timeliness, or a hook. For Seattle’s part, the city’s recent Space Needle refresh and megabrand Amazon’s recent influence in reshaping part of the city also helped earn Seattle a spot on Lonely Planet’s Best Cities list in 2019.

What Does it Mean When a City Has “Arrived?”

For lesser-known or smaller cities that make these national (and international) lists, the recognition means a destination has arrived, editorially speaking. Meaning, they’re already attracting visitors from across the country (and around the world in some cases)—a destination who can attract out-of-towners willing to part with limited vacation days to spend time and money in these parts says a lot. Behind the scenes, it should also mean a destination has the infrastructure (transportation, lodging, access to points of interest) to support travelers, though this isn’t always the case—the 2019 super bloom fiasco in southern California is an example.

So then, what about those under the radar cities, those corners of the country on the verge of creeping into our psyche and taking firm hold as our next coveted travel destination? 

Nashville, Tennessee

From Obscurity to Destination Darling

How does a city jump from obscurity to destination darling, when before, we wouldn’t have given this place a second thought—or in the case of High Point, North Carolina, for example have given zero thought to (as a West Coast dweller) until I traveled there this year?

On the one hand, if you’re in the furniture and design industry, you already know that High Point is arguably best known as the furniture capital of America. The annual High Point Market brings in makers, designers, and manufacturers from all over the globe, and business and partnership deals resulting from this trade show likely predicts the furniture and décor trends you’ll see in stores next season.

While High Point Market is one of the few times the city’s population swells with international visitors, and while the city’s university ebbs and flows with visitors according to the school calendar, what is the draw for the traveler looking to drop their hard-earned dollars on a vacation?

According to members of High Point’s chamber of commerce, perhaps its baseball stadium, which debuted in 2019, will attract visitors as much as it hopes to bolster local quality of life. The stadium, which plays host to semi-professional ball games, concerts, and other entertaining activities indicates the city has only begun to scratch the surface of maximizing its potential as an undoubted travel destination.

Pimento Cheese at Magnolia Blue, High Point, North Carolina

Culinary Travel Continues to Grow

In that same thread, what else might interest travelers to visit a city like High Point? Maybe a banging food scene, for starters.

As a travel writer who tends to focus heavily on food, I tend to assess a city by the breadth and depth of its dining scene. I’m not alone. According to travel trade publication Skift, which covers travel trends regularly, “We expect to see more travelers plan their trips around food in 2019, whether that’s food-based activities such as stomping wine grapes in Italy, seeking out the best dim sum in Hong Kong, or exploring the night markets of Singapore.” And in 2017, a AAA survey found that nearly 22 million Americans planned to take a culinary vacation that year.

In this regard, while I did enjoy satisfying meals along N. Main Street during my brief visit, High Point has potential to grow and diversify its current offerings. For example, locals know that the Triad (short for Piedmont Triad, which encompasses parts of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point) is chock-full of Vietnamese food options, and enterprising companies seeking to aggregate the area’s diversity of restaurant options, like Ethnosh, would be helpful for visitors.

Pandora’s Manor, High Point, North Carolina

High Point, North Carolina: What’s Next?

Downtown, I’ll be curious to see how the energy around its new baseball stadium, a planned co-working space, as well as a food hall, and new hotels as High Point’s chamber of commerce tells me, might transform the area into a year-round travel destination.

Historically speaking, High Point has some gems working in its favor. For example, jazz legend John Coltrane’s childhood home is located here. And for design fans, Pandora’s Manor, while located in an odd, industrial part of downtown is a leveled up bed and breakfast experience. Each suite in the six-room, 20th century renovated home was designed and furnished by a local interior designer. 

Between these attractions and those to come, time will prove which direction the city is headed in, if travelers will follow, and whether we’ll be reading about High Point on a best-of travel list in the future.

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