The world has changed, just like ’52 places’

This year, the second in a row, the Times Travel desk faced the challenge of creating one of our signature pieces of journalism, the annual ’52 places’ list, in a world turned upside down.

A year ago, with global travel coming to a halt, we turned to readers to ask about the places that had supported them through the darkest days of lockdown. That list included sites as varied as fantastic colored rock formations in India and a modest masonry church in south London. They were distant destinations dear to memory, or nearby places that had offered comfort, and they served as a reminder that the world was still there waiting.

As the pandemic approaches its third calendar year, global travel is more possible, but it remains difficult and full of uncertainty. The populations of many countries outside of North America and Europe are largely unvaccinated, while China and other countries in Asia remain closed to most visitors. Shortly after the Biden administration relaxed rules around international travel to the United States, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus began to spread. Even vaccinated travelers who have been given boosters are not immune to this latest twist in the virus. Travel restrictions on visitors from South African countries were quickly introduced and subsequently lifted.

In addition to the pandemic, there is a profound shift in the global understanding of climate change and the speed and extent to which we are already seeing its effects. Forest fires, floods, dangerous storms, rising water levels and temperatures: they all remind us how fragile our world really is. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the travel industry is responsible for between 8 and 11 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and at the climate summit in Glasgow this fall, the tourism industry made its first commitment to halve CO2 emissions by 2030 and reach “net zero” by 2050.

There’s also the problem of overtourism, which has been kept in check by the pandemic, but threatens to resurface if the world gets moving again. The crowds that have made Venice nearly impassable in high season, or turned Barcelona neighborhoods into Airbnb outposts, has thinned out for now. But have we learned anything from the forced closures, or will the same patterns resurface?

But as the dedication of the Glasgow tourism industry shows, travel can also be part of the solution, and not just for the climate. Travel supports depleted economies in places that depend on tourist dollars and opens travelers’ eyes to cultures and customs other than their own. That thought is the inspiring spirit behind this year’s list, “52 Places for a Changed World.”

In the past, the list has often focused on things like a new hot restaurant, an exciting new museum, or the opening of a fantastic beachfront resort. By contrast, this list highlights places where change is happening — where endangered wildlife areas are preserved, endangered species are protected, historic abuses are recognized, vulnerable communities are strengthened — and where travelers can be part of the change. A visit to a Canadian park run by an indigenous tribe helps keep a culture alive. Sampling whiskey at a Scottish distillery switching to zero-emission fuel helps reduce carbon emissions. Dining at a Midwestern restaurant staffed by previously incarcerated people contributes to improvement. We’re especially excited about places where grassroots efforts are driving transformation, making their piece of the world better in the face of all that’s wrong.

This isn’t the spinach (or broccoli) of travel lists: The vistas of Argentina’s Iberá Park are breathtaking, even if you don’t know that the park’s grasslands are crucial to saving a bird known as the strange-tailed tyrant. Shark diving in the Caribbean is magical, but it’s even more magical when you know you’re helping save these creatures that are so important to the health of the oceans. Exploring the moody coast of Normandy on a bike is delightful, and the carbon saved is a bonus.

Some places on this list are not yet open to travelers, and some are in areas hard hit by the virus that may not be safe, at least for now. Our message is not to jump on the next plane, but to use this list as inspiration for your own more purposeful, more fulfilling journeys in the coming year and beyond.

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