The New York Times’ annual 52 Places to Go list, like similar lists, has become a highly anticipated franchise by many travelers and travel brands that look to it for inspiration on which destinations offer great reasons to visit in the coming year.
The list, which will mark its thirteenth year in 2018, has resonated with travelers to the extent that the publication is hiring a reporter to visit the 52 places that make the 2018 list.
This is the first time the Times has hired a reporter specifically to visit each place and make an itinerary out of them. The travel section’s “36 Hours” series, however, has been showing travelers’ destination itineraries since the series began more than a decade ago.
The Times was set to post its application for the job on Monday as its travel section brainstorms which places will make its upcoming list set to publish in January. Writers and editors are still fielding suggestions and narrowing the list, but the editorial staff plan to play it somewhat safe with this year’s list, said Monica Drake, the New York Times travel editor.
Drake said the 2018 list will probably be more conservative in terms of security.
“Before terrorists were attacking tourism destinations as soft targets, we might have said one place might have seemed a little risky but travelers accept a certain amount of risk,” said Drake. “We would never put a place on the list that the U.S. State Department recommends not to go to.”
The Times has always considered the overall safety of a place for travelers before recommending it. But Drake mused that her team is taking an even closer look at safety and stability in places this year in addition to the myriad of other factors that are part of the decision process.
That means if a place has a history of political instability and violence that has any chance of flaring up in the coming year, that place is less likely to make the cut, for example. “I have a feeling that this year won’t include many of those places at all, many people don’t have much of a tolerance for risk,” said Drake.
Travelers who prefer a safe vacation when they can kick back and relax might not go to some of these places, said Drake. But the list doesn’t typically include far-flung, currently violent places, anyway. The 2017 list, for instance, had Canada as the number one place to visit.
The feature usually includes a few surprises. Drake said people were mystified by Detroit making the 2017 list. “We probably picked a place that was already experiencing some kind of rise,” she said.
Each year’s list has its own tempo, said Drake, and the 2018 list might be a little more relaxed than past years’. “The list is driven by things that tourism boards would tout, but it’s also driven by the mood of the country and what people would really want to do there in the coming year,” she said. “Some years we’re more adventurous. Some years we’re more interested in cities. We try to have something for every person’s interests.”
Picking places that have mass appeal likely won’t be as important for 2018, said Drake. “We might be more focused than we usually are – and probably more than in the past few years – on appealing to certain types of audiences,” she said. “Each year we have destinations that tell us ‘Hey, we have something for everyone’ and we’ve thought that was ok.”
“We’re giving a little more leeway with choosing places as long as the audience that a place appeals to isn’t too narrow,” she said. “We’ll be looking at places that appeal to families too.”
Appealing to Current Travel Trends
The list has included 52 places for the past four years – one place to aspire to visit for each week of the year. “Behind the idea with this list is that this is increasingly the way people travel now,” said Drake. “They’re not necessarily taking a week-long vacation. People are taking a lot of short amounts of time off and structuring the time they travel. This feels very of the moment.”
Drake said the biggest challenge for the new reporter will be making it to all 52 places. “We’ve done this sort of thing before but not over the course of a year,” she said. “I don’t want to send this person to Paris and have them go to all the tourist attractions and say ‘I’m done.'”
She added: “The trip will be a real way of having the real-life version of the destination. I’m counting on this person to say yes, you can go to the Eiffel Tower but this is actually the best view of the tower. We need them to get beyond the landmarks and see if this is a feasible trip.”
The reporter will have some liberty in shaping the themes of itineraries that they create for each place depending on their own interests. Music, for instance, could become a recurring motif.
“There will be something common that they will do in each destination,” said Drake. “If there’s a different approach in each place it might not seem like part of the same project. There should be a common thread.”
Getting Readers Engaged
The Times wants the reporter to jell with its readers and engage with them every step of their 52 places journey.
Drake said the list will also look visually different than last year’s and take on new formats. Last year’s list featured 360-degree videos and had large photos and the 2018 format will look different but will still include words and images, she said.
The reporter won’t have a film crew with them, but they’ll need to be savvy with social media. “I’m a big proponent of having community engagement not just living on our platform,” said Drake. “We’re pretty excited to use this as a way to take content that may originally be social-first and taking a narrative and cultivating it for our own platform.”
Geographic and cultural diversity are also key features of the list, and making use of the popular channels in different countries will also be important for the reporter. “Different countries have different platforms and I do think it’d be cool to play around with them,” said Drake. “It’ll help the New York Times play around with different story forms.”