The 52 Places to Go list is one of Travel’s biggest efforts of the year, for which The Times enlists writers and photographers around the globe, as well as a cadre of editors, designers and interactive specialists who work to produce it. Until the list is published early on Wednesday morning, I can’t reveal what spots made it, but I can offer some insight into how it is put together.
I became The Times’s Travel editor at the end of October, just as the process was ramping up, and I had to leap into the deep end.
To start, the editors on the Travel desk asked the journalists who have written for us in the past what places they find most intriguing. We asked them to pitch their favorite destinations in about 150 words or so, about the length of the final write-ups. Their suggestions were compiled into one big document, which this year ran to more than 70 pages. In some cases, multiple writers suggested the same place — often because there was some new development, or a special event taking place in 2019 — and a number of them made our final list.
The Times is incredibly lucky to have an army of great journalists stationed around the world, so once we had the travel writers’ candidates in hand, I sent out a blast to our foreign correspondents, asking for their suggestions (you will see a number of their bylines on our final list). Editors also reached out to people who know certain parts of the world well: cultural correspondents, former writers for The Times, friends who travel frequently.
Then we scheduled a bunch of marathon meetings to go through the list.
What are we looking for? Change is key: What is different in each destination that makes it a place to go right now? That could mean an exciting building that has just gone up, a major piece of infrastructure that has made the place more accessible or political events that have made it safer for travelers.
I wanted us to make climate change a priority. What places are we in danger of losing? You will find destinations threatened by global warming, from islands where sea levels are rising and powerful and more frequent storms are presenting a special threat, to cold-weather spots where winter’s full beauty is endangered. We thought putting them on the list could help raise important red flags.
History matters, and there are places that earned spots on our list because they are marking major milestones in interesting ways. Other key factors: What’s happening culturally that might make a destination particularly interesting this year? Are there natural phenomena making certain places must-sees? Are there spots that might offer new alternatives to old favorites?
About 20 destinations were shoo-ins. I personally had strong ideas about two spots, and yes, they are on the list. We argued. One editor pushed for a certain city, saying its cultural merits earned it a spot. Another argued that a particular country deserved a nod, even after we had passed over it. It is on the list. Our photo editor, Phaedra Brown, who has worked on this project for many years, provided institutional knowledge — sorry, City X, you made it four years ago.
Some early contenders got cut. Everyone who watches travel is interested in Egypt, where a big new museum complex was supposed to open near the Giza pyramids in 2019. It was on our list until it became clear the museum won’t open until at least 2020.
Some people question the very existence of this kind of list in the age of overtourism and when travel itself contributes to climate change. I think those are legitimate questions, and we certainly don’t think that all our readers are going to travel to these exact spots this year. But our 52 Places Traveler — whose identity will also be revealed on Wednesday morning — will, and contend with some of those issues in the year’s dispatches.
And one secret is that we actually pick more than 52 places, just in case. In fact, we swapped a spot just last week. What was on and what was off? Ask me once the list is published.
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