Skift Take

Being named the top anything is usually exciting for any destination and comes with lots of free publicity. But as some tourism boards point out, reviews from travelers themselves often resonate more with consumers than an official ranking.

Being named one of the top 10 beaches in the United States is an accolade any destination would be happy to accept as the summer travel season officially kicks off in the U.S.

Dr. Beach released his annual ranking of America’s top 10 beaches last week and it included some familiar names such as Florida’s Siesta Beach, which ranked number one for the second time since 2011, and Cape Cod, Massachusett’s Coast Guard Beach.

Many beaches that have earned spots on Dr. Beach’s ranking attribute that distinction in part to increased visitation to the beach and surrounding community. Top-ranked beaches also typically have investment and infrastructure projects in the works that add or improve amenities and help protect the beaches’ environments and wildlife.

Siesta Beach, for example, recently completed $21.5 million in renovations which included adding more parking, a playground and picnic area.

But with more publicity and higher foot traffic, beach management and tourism boards are balancing how to maintain their high standards and visitor experience while mitigating environmental impact and educating visitors on how to keep beaches clean.

Many locals who live in destinations with popular beaches also aren’t pleased with more visitors, even if it benefits their communities. “I get emails from people in Sarasota unhappy about the list,” said Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach. “I get hundreds of emails from people concerned about the rankings. Yes, it does increase the number of people who come and that does make some local people unhappy.”

“Siesta Beach has grown its staff and resources since it appeared on Dr. Beach’s 2011 ranking,” said Carolyn Brown, general manager of parks and recreation for Sarasota County.

“As we move into the July 4 holiday, we’re preparing our staff to let visitors know that they should leave no trace,” said Brown. “We always tell visitors to clean up after themselves. It’s a challenge during holidays but we’re doing our best to educate the public.”

But many travelers probably don’t know the meat of what it means to be the number one beach and don’t consider that it’s tied to the beach’s environmental efforts, said Erin Duggan, vice president of Visit Sarasota County. “But when they hear Dr. Beach I think they do recognize his credentials,” said Duggan. “I think it intrigues them if they’ve never been.”

The ranking is considered one of the most prestigious U.S. beach rankings as Leatherman considers some 650 public beaches across the U.S. He’s done the ranking for more than 25 years and judges beaches on 50 criteria ranging from how warm their waters are to how much parking is available to what color the sand is.

Dr. Beach, however, isn’t the only beach ranking of interest as some beaches that make the list also cite TripAdvisor, for example, as a driver of visitation because those reviews and rankings come directly from travelers.

Siesta Beach was also voted the top U.S. beach in 2015 and 2017 on TripAdvisor.

Balancing Beach and Environment

While many destinations invest their own time and money into maintaining their beaches, Coast Guard Beach on Cape Cod in Massachusetts is maintained by the National Park Service. “Our number one issue that we’ve been working on for many years is wastewater infrastructure because the Cape doesn’t really have much of that,” said Wendy Northcross, CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re acutely aware of those kinds of impacts. I think if we were open year-round I think you might see other overt efforts to try to pace visitation but we don’t enjoy it,” she said.

U.S. beaches, however, are typically cleaner and more environmentally friendly than beaches in Southeast Asia or Latin America, for example, said Leatherman. “The U.S. has really high water quality standards and worldwide, I think water quality has gone down a bit,” he said.

“Some beaches try to hide data and have the improper development of waste water management. There are a lot of development in some parts of the world that have decreased water quality and Spanish beaches are one example of this.”

Leatherman has been to all 650 public beaches in the U.S. and limits his ranking to American beaches because he hasn’t been to all of the world’s beaches.

A professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, Leatherman has penned more than 200 academic journal articles and has edited or written more than a dozen books about beaches. His rankings have appeared annually since 1991.

He said he’s “never found a perfect beach but has found a lot of great ones.” While aesthetics are part of the ranking, Leatherman’s ranking is more concentrated with the environmental health of the beach and quality of amenities.

“Some people don’t like to see buildings when they’re on a beach but others want to stay on a beach and have those creature comforts close by,” said Leatherman. Even with Siesta, I gave them a total score of 241 of 250 and the criteria is set up with rating the resources and what people expect.”

Using Dr. Beach in Marketing Campaigns

Duggan said Visit Sarasota County lets Dr. Beach’s ranking speak for itself but does capitalize on it.

“Last week we immediatly we created a little video about Siesta Beach on our Facebook page,” said Duggan. “Most of our marketing campaigns are also about beaches and they’ve always been the primary focus of our campaigns.”

The Eastham, Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, which helps promote Coast Guard Beach, consistently makes Dr. Beach’s ranking each year and puts up posters in its information booths to let visitors know that the beach has made the list, said Jim Russo, executive director of the Eastham Chamber of Commerce.

Being able to market yourself as a top beach destination and tag on Dr. Beach’s credentials doesn’t hurt from a public relations perspective. But many destinations also realize that managing the environmental impact from an influx of visitors becomes increasingly difficult when they make these rankings as visitors often leave behind more than their footprints.


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Tags: beaches, tourism

Photo credit: Siesta Beach in Sarasota, Florida, pictured here, was named the top beach in America by Dr. Beach last week and has made investments to ensure it maintains its reputation. Jim Mullhaupt / Flickr

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