Summer beach vacations were an annual ritual of my New England childhood. We would rent cottages usually, first in Connecticut, on Long Island Sound, then on Cape Cod.
Youthful memories keep those trips vivid—shell collecting, the scent of salt air, the slap of the cottage screen door, the scary height of a big breaker, and sand everywhere, on the porch, in my picnic, in my bathing suit. A sunny, gritty delight.
Decades have since passed; today the screen door swings shut behind a friend’s grandchild. But the seaside abides, representing the eternal escape.
Or not. Something has happened over those decades. The human population has doubled; the affluent part of it has more than quadrupled. And so, by most estimates, has coastal tourism. We are flocking to the world’s seacoasts by the millions. There probably is no more popular type of destination.
I suspect some atavistic instinct lies embedded in our brains: Seek the ocean! The reasons that compel us to return vary as much as the coasts in this year’s survey. We go for rest and relaxation: To stroll the walk-till-you-drop beach of a barrier island, build sandcastles with the kids, gaze over a hazy Adriatic from the holiday villa with the arbor of scented jasmine. We go to watch the beach scene, over cotton candy on the boardwalk, over a drink at a rum-fueled seaside bar. We go for adventure: the boating excursion to visit a puffin colony on a wild fjord, the hike atop surf-battered bluffs, the scuba plunge down a cliff of coral. Our coastlines, of course, have not quadrupled, even as the pressure on them has. Increasing development. Shrinking wetlands. Rising seas. More oil drilling and shipping lanes offshore. More garbage washing onshore. More air travel, bringing more tourists. The Mediterranean’s coastal population already doubles in summer; Spain’s Costa Brava jumps sevenfold.
The magnitude of the changes first struck me when I returned to Crete after a ten-year absence. On the northern coast, the old stone-walled harbor towns still rested under the Mediterranean sun, but flavorless resorts had sprouted between them, and cheaply built villas spattered the countryside, without plan or style.
There is only so much coast to go around. Along the Chesapeake Bay’s shoreline, which measures thousands of miles, locals have complained that whenever shorefront property becomes available, “rich people snap it up.” From Costa Rica to Nova Scotia, native residents are getting priced out of their own oceanfronts. Some places cope with these changes. Others teeter at a tipping point.
This year, the seventh for this annual survey, our panel of 340 experts in sustainable tourism and destination stewardship rated 99 coastal destinations, a geographically and culturally representative sampler of the world’s waterside locales. In the following pages we present seven of our panel-rated destinations that have encouraging stories to tell. Among these is the first destination ever to register in the range of “Catastrophic,” with a score of 24 out of a possible 100: the oil-stained coast of Louisiana. The less highlighted story here is the Pelican State’s watery network of inland marshes and bayous, which have largely escaped oil damage and invite exploration.
Ironically, offshore oil drilling also is an issue for the top scorer, Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula (84), where the winning scenery and genuine nature of the people contend with a petro-funded future of new development and potentially unbalancing immigration.
A final observation: Colder locales tend to score higher thanks to fewer development pressures. So it’s good to see warm-weather coasts such as Oman’s Batinah (79) and Kauai’s Na Pali (79) in the Top Rated group. In the end, the quality of our coasts depends less on climate than on us—how we use them, how we care for them. Visit them well, and support the businesses that support the place.
Jonathan B. Tourtellot, Traveler’s geotourism editor and a National Geographic Fellow, devised this destination stewardship survey in 2003.
From the November-December 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler