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The Places We Love III: Yikes, Can This Be How the Big Money at Davos Views Travel?

  Third in a series of occasional blogs about the ever-changing quality of travel destinations around the world—about what’s going on behind the scenes and how it affects the character of the places we care about. Hong Kong has more natural attractions than Ireland. Sweden is culturally richer than all of India. Eh? Welcome to...


Mass tourism on the Costa Brava, Spain. Economic success or failure? (Photo by Jonathan Tourtellot)

Third in a series of occasional blogs about the ever-changing quality of travel destinations around the world—about what’s going on behind the scenes and how it affects the character of the places we care about.

Hong Kong has more natural attractions than Ireland. Sweden is culturally richer than all of India.


Welcome to the world of economic research—combined in reports that can be used to shape the places we love to visit. The business leaders and economists who gathered at the World Economic Forum recently in Davos, Switzerland can find the data behind these startling comparisons in the Forum’s own 500-page Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report.

To be sure, the report is a massive piece of work—wonky but fascinating stuff if you’ve never looked at how the tourism industry thinks. The report’s star feature is its ratings of national economies, the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index.

“Competitiveness” is money-speak for: “Would your company want to build a hotel there?” Of course, the question behind the question then has to be: “Would we travelers show up and stay in it?”

And the winner is . . .

Presumably, then, the most competitive countries are the ones we would most enjoy visiting. So which is the best? Of the 139 countries rated in 2011, Numero Uno, the winner for the fourth year running is:


Well, OK. Switzerland is certainly pretty good. It’s a beautiful country that takes excellent care of itself. Coincidentally (sort of), it’s the home of Davos. Is it the most appealing nation on Earth? It’s not without wrinkles. The Swiss franc soared so high into the stratosphere—at least until the Swiss tied it down to the euro—that most people couldn’t afford visiting where an average restaurant meal for two could run $200. Not so competitive, that!

Otherwise, though, Switzerland is a reasonable winner. At the other end of the scale,it’s no surprise either that impoverished, refugee-laden Chad anchors the bottom at No. 139. The U.S., by the way, comes in at a strong number 6, despite bombing out on ease-of-entry. (Just try to get a visa.)

But the Forum’s report contains some bizarre results, too. The scores are a composite of 14 different categories, each with its own sub-scores, and they don’t always add up:

  • Ireland, the Emerald Isle, ranks 112 on natural resources, much lower than high-rise Hong Kong, ranked at 68. Really?
  • Botswana, home of $400-a-night eco-safaris, nevertheless ranks 8 on price competitiveness, purportedly a much better deal than moderately priced Peru, at rank 81.
  • Sweden ranks first in cultural resources—more than France (rank 10) or all of polyglot India (rank 24).

How can this be? The answer lies in the use of metrics—that is, the report relies on things you can count. The ranking system is based partly on CEO interview results but more heavily on a set of quantifiable indicators. Hong Kong, for instance, has a high percentage of its tiny land area under protection, so it comes out looking greener than Ireland. New Zealand’s vulnerable island ecosystem records the world’s highest rate of threatened species—probably because New Zealand actually bothered to record them—but that bad number knocks one of the world’s most conservation-minded nations downward in the ranking.

Why should we care? Because governments and investors make decisions based in part on this report, decisions that might improve a destination, or ruin it.

Stewardship or Ease of Business?

For comparison, look at the National Geographic rankings of destinations, published annually in National Geographic Traveler from 2004 through 2010. We avoided quantifiable measures—how do you quantify scenic beauty or cultural integrity?—and based the surveys solely on hundreds of expert opinions as to each destination’s condition. The results generated an Index of Destination Stewardship.

The 2009 survey of destination stewardship, National Geographc Traveler, November/December.

To be sure, the purpose was different from the Davos research. We were looking at sustainability, Davos at economics. But the two do relate. In the long run, a place can’t succeed at one without the other. The National Geographic surveys polled opinions from experts with a stewardship bias. The Forum polls business executives, presumably with an economic and profit bias. Legitimate perceptions from two different directions.

The trouble begins when they conflict. A higher score in some Forum categories may actually hurt destination quality. Ease of business and competitive pricing, for instance, may mask lax environmental protection and free-fire zones for slapdash developers. Heavy cruise ship traffic and sprawling vacation subdivisions dampen stewardship scores, but economic metrics like infrastructure may encourage that very overdevelopment. Tourism is known for fouling its own nest. The once “unspoiled” destination spoils, growing a rancid crust of asphalt and fast-food franchises.


Quantify vs. Qualify

Then there are the arithmetic issues. The report does assign Switzerland a bottom-hugging 127 in pricing competitiveness, but cost-of-trip, the decision-maker for many tourists, apparently gets no more weight in the Index formula than any of the other 13 categories.

While many numerical measures used by the report are fine, some others are a bit weird.

The Culture category counts history only in terms of a country’s UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites. No other protected historic places or districts—too hard to find and quantify. No museums, theaters, and performance venues, either. The researchers have tried, but the data’s not there.

What is easy to count? Sport stadium seats! No kidding. In Davos economics, one-fifth of the weighting for a nation’s cultural-resource score is based on its stadium capacity. That might make sense in Texas, but not in Italy.

The Human Resources category includes several general-education measures—fine—but no measure of local employment in tourism business, such as tour guides, innkeepers, restaurant staffs. No reasonable way to get the data. But one factor the Index does count is, um, HIV prevalence. Just what sort of tourism are we assessing here?

Those oddities are not necessarily the fault of the researchers, who burned much late-night oil to get the huge report done. Indeed, they welcome suggestions for better measures. It’s more the framing of the task in the first place. For example, quantitative data is usually tabulated by political jurisdictions. Deal with 139 of them, and it’s virtually impossible to get meaningful comparisons against an international stew of varying definitions, methods, and accuracy. If statistically desperate, you’re tempted to grab whatever data is available.

To paraphrase an oft-forgotten observation: The quantifiable is not necessarily meaningful, nor is the meaningful always quantifiable. We don’t want economic and political leaders basing their decisions about our favorite destinations on a foundation of quantified mush.

Probably travel and tourism hasn’t been foremost on the minds of the money-barons who gathered at Davos, though it does constitute, by most measures, one of the world’s top three industries.  And a country that I personally love is foremost on their minds: Greece.

Gorgeous Greece has now become worrisome  to visit. Its debt crisis is a black hole in the economic cosmos, sucking in massive clouds of euros and hope. Are more protests, more strikes to come?

Greece scores a robust 29 out of 139 in tourism competitiveness. Go figure.

Better yet, Davos, don’t figure. Evaluate instead. More insight and fewer numbers, perhaps? We count on you for wisdom that will protect the places we love.

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Meet the Author

Jonathan Tourtellot
National Geographic Fellow Emeritus; Founding Director, Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; President, Focus on Places LLC