Photograph by Michael Melford
In the Balance: A mixed bag of successes and worries, with the future at risk.
Bonaire: As a Whole
Part of a well-managed national marine park since 1979, the reef-ringed coast of this island off the coast of Venezuela consistently ranks among the world's best places for scuba diving. Historical treasures, which include Dutch colonial architecture and Amerindian rock paintings, also draw many visitors. Resort construction has taken off in recent years and may jeopardize Bonaire's appeal if it is not properly managed.
India: Kerala Coastal Areas
Thanks to conservation efforts lead by the local government and a relatively eco-friendly tourism industry, the palm-fringed beaches and backwater canals of this southwestern Indian state are in better ecological condition than many of the country's other coastal attractions. The region also boasts a high degree of cultural integrity. Unfortunately, "unplanned urban development" has proliferated recently and the high number of houseboats navigating the backwaters "is a bit much and diminishing the tranquility and spirit of the place."
Germany: Baltic Coast
Before Reunification, much of this marshy coast belonged to communist East Germany and was difficult for Westerners to access. Visitor numbers have risen in the years since the Iron Curtain was pulled back, and the region faces increased development pressures. Its historic cities showcase their well-preserved old towns, which are often surrounded by "less pleasant socialist-era blocks."
Alaska's small capital lies among the fjords, glaciers, and mountains of the Inland Passage and basks in a relatively mild climate. Although “nearby coastal areas are in great shape,” downtown “serves as a theme park for cruise ship passengers.”
Mauritius: As a Whole
The cultural, biological, and geological diversity of this semi-submerged volcano, whose rugged peak rises abruptly from the southwest Indian Ocean, makes it an especially appealing destination. Unfortunately, the tourism industry, characterized by large, all-inclusive resorts, fails to contribute to a sense of place and doesn't economically benefit local residents to the extent that it could.
Denmark: Jutland Beach Areas
Historic towns with half-timbered facades occasionally interrupt long stretches of grass-crowned sand dunes here along the windswept shoreline of Denmark's mainland. Though the area offers enormous aesthetic appeal, its tourism infrastructure is somewhat inadequate and farming has harmed its ecology.
Italy: Sardinia, Costa Smeralda
Though luxury hotels, large marinas, and deluxe villas now dot Sardinia's once-pristine northeastern coast, the area still offers "much aesthetic appeal" thanks to the smart decisions and clear vision of regional planners. Regardless, the coast is primarily "a playground for tourists" that isolates them from local Sardinian culture. There is also "far too much car traffic for it to maintain any degree of environmental quality."
UAE: Abu Dhabi
Though often overshadowed by Dubai, the capital of the United Arab Emirates perhaps offers a better overall travel experience than the federation's largest city. Traditional architectural styles and sustainability principles have informed new development. The city has thus retained a stronger sense of place than its more over-the-top neighbor, and the surrounding desert has sustained less ecological damage in the wake of the country's recent building boom. A lower carbon footprint would have resulted in an even higher score.
Maldives: As a Whole
Resorts isolated on their own islands typify tourism on this sprinkle of atolls in the western Indian Ocean. Although many of these all-inclusive holiday makers' havens are eco-friendly, they rarely afford visitors opportunities to interact with local Maldivians. Climate change brings worries about sea level rise to those low-lying islands, and warmer ocean temperatures are causing coral bleaching to the archipelago.
Mexico: Tulum to Sian Kaan
This "well-managed" stretch of Yucatan shoreline is littered with Mayan ruins and bounded by the world's second-largest coral reef. Though it still provides a better view into the region's history and local culture than nearby Cancún and Playa del Carmen, the "mass-produced resorts" and "alien-to-the-environment-and-local-lifestyle approach" to tourism in those two places have unfortunately begun to creep southwards towards Tulum.
Washington: Puget Sound
Home to Seattle and the San Juan Islands, the Puget Sound and its coast remains surprisingly intact ecologically for a region that has undergone so much development. Sprawl, overfishing, and storm-water runoff all cause problems. Though sustainability is a buzzword in Seattle, one panelist complained that "there is more green talk than true green action."
Blanketing the slopes of Mount Carmel, northern Israel's busiest port and largest city wows with its spectacular Mediterranean Sea views and wealth of interesting archeological sites. Panelists criticized its poor tourism infrastructure and unfriendliness to non-Israeli visitors.
Tanzania: Swahili Coast
Given its historical appeal, natural beauty, and location in a relatively politically stable country, it's not surprising that Tanzania's coastline has emerged as one of Africa's tourism hotspots. The region "has so much potential" but will face numerous bumps in the road on its journey to becoming a sustainable destination—things like political corruption, insufficient infrastructure, and poor waste management.
Turkey: Turquoise Coast
Ancient ruins stand alongside recently constructed beach resorts here on the sun-baked hills of the southern section of Turkey's Aegean coast. This coast is a long one, and the state of stewardship can vary widely from place to place. Parts of it "still maintain a rugged character," but other spots are "overcrowded" and "blighted by second-home developments."
California: Santa Catalina Island
The Santa Catalina Island Conservancy protects 88 percent of this hilly island. The rural, unspoiled character of Catalina contrasts starkly with the traffic-choked sprawl of the southern California mainland, located only an hour away by ferry. The island is not the paradise that brochures often make it out to be. Avalon, the main population center, can get crowded on weekends and introduced animal species have imperiled many local ecosystems.
Morocco: Mediterranean Coast
Morocco's craggy Rif Mountains rim the country's less visited northern coast. Much of the region "remains pristine and unique," and several of its centuries-old towns boast well-preserved historic districts. "Poverty and pollution" need to be better addressed, however, and some tourism development is inappropriate.
Chile: Viña del Mar
Stately old mansions and sleek new condominiums skirt the palm-lined boulevards of this fashionable beach city. Viña del Mar remains attractive and historically interesting, but overbuilding has damaged the ecology of its beaches, and peak-season crowds and traffic are poorly handled.
History, culture, and geologic drama collide on spectacular Santorini, making it "one of the world's most outstanding places to visit"—and daily submerging it in the tide of cruise-ship passengers that such a reputation attracts. But although tourism has washed away much of the island's authenticity, "care has been taken in recent years to restrict new development."
England: Torbay, Devon
The mild climate of this fertile stretch of Britain's south coast has earned it the sobriquet "English Riviera." Visitors will find here potted palm trees and "tatty-looking hotels."
Sri Lanka: South Coast, Galle to Hambatota
Six years after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami and one year after its 25-year-long civil war came to an end, this tropical island nation still gropes for political and economic stability. Tourism, if done right, could help it get back on its feet. Having escaped earlier waves of flavorless resort development that plagued other parts of the island and exhibiting some successful environmental conservation projects, the south coast shows promise for becoming a sustainable destination.
Spain: Tenerife, Canary Islands
Cultural and ecological integrity vary from place to place on this largest member of the volcano-studded Canaries. While much of Tenerife's less developed interior and north shore "retains its original ambience and historical character," the overbuilt nature of the southern coast is "truly appalling." "A rising interest of locals in environmental issues" encourages hope for positive change.
Belize: Coast and Reef
Corralled in by colorful reefs, dotted with Mayan ruins, and cloaked in dense jungle that invites exploration, Belize is an irresistible destination. Each year, nearly 850,000 visitors descend on this country whose permanent population is less than 300,000. The coastal region "is in pretty good shape" compared to the rest of the Caribbean" and "has done a good job focusing its tourism toward low volume and higher quality," but it still suffers from environmental degradation, loss of cultural authenticity, and other byproducts of popularity.
Honduras: Northern Coast
Honduras' reputation for political instability and poverty has long kept tourist numbers low. In recent years, however, more and more people have begun to discover the lure of its northern coast, from the relatively intact culture of the indigenous Garifuna community, to the scenic beauty of its mountain-flanked beaches. Social problems from the past persist, and new development has damaged the rain forest and offshore reefs, but the region continues to make inroads into community-based, small-scale tourism––progress that perhaps contributed to this destination's five-point improvement over last year's score.
The largest of the beautiful, yet visitor-swamped Balearic Islands "appears to have learned from the development mistakes of the sixties and seventies." The south-coast beach resorts sprawling outwards from Palma, the capital, remain "slightly shabby," but the city itself has undergone some refurbishment. Smart preservation and conservation policies have looked after the rural charm and natural allure of much of the rest of the island.
Latvia: Jurmala Area
This collection of resorts and small towns 20 miles west of Riga has been one of Eastern Europe's summer vacation hotspots since the late 19th century. The Soviet era brought pollution and unsightly development, and tourism infrastructure suffered neglect during the economically tumultuous 1990s, but recent years have seen beaches cleaned up and historic hotels lovingly restored.
Costa Rica: Pacific Coast
The northern, drier section of Costa Rica's west coast serves as the hub of the country's booming hospitality industry. Sustainability advocates used to regard this region as an epicenter of responsible tourism. In recent years, "huge resorts," and "identikit high-rise condo communities" have taken over. In the less developed south the picture is better. "Long stretches of still-unspoiled sandy beaches abut forested hills and valleys."
Dominican Republic: Cabo Samaná
This bite-sized chunk of land that dangles from the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic was once an oasis of locally owned hotels and other mom-and-pop establishments in a country where international franchises dominate. Things have changed in recent years. A new airport and highway have made the area more accessible, and developers of large, all-inclusive resorts have begun to snatch up "some of the most charming beaches and coves in the country."
England: Brighton, East Sussex
Located on the English Channel, bohemian Brighton has long served as a favorite weekend getaway for Londoners. Growing pains came with its 20th-century transformation from quaint health resort town into "bustling, cosmopolitan city," including "ugly sprawl" and patience-trying traffic jams. Promotional campaigns today advertise Brighton as a green destination, suggesting that the city may be working to minimize the impact of its growth on the environment.
Read Panelist Comments »
Descriptions written by Jonathan King. Comments edited by Jonathan King, Marilyn Terrell, and Jonathan B. Tourtellot.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
Browse photos of nature, cities, and people and share your favorite photos.