Top Travel Destinations: 1971–2011
To mark our 40th year, T+L takes a look at the top travel destinations from 1971 through today.
The traveler’s map sure looked different in T+L’s first decade. Future hot spots like Shanghai, Prague, Moscow, and Saigon were still well beyond the pale, but Americans were heading to Burma, to Iran (then booming under the shah), and, for a brief time, to Cuba, after the U.S. travel ban was lifted in 1977. (It was reinstated five years later.)
How distant—and innocent—that world now seems. We spoke of our inalienable right to sunbathe (paging George Hamilton!); rhapsodized about Kauai, Hawaii’s “least-known island”; and extolled the virtues of Brie, “the undisputed king of cheese.” Europe still reigned—dominating our 1970’s coverage—but the decade also belonged to Mexico. T+L readers couldn’t get enough of Acapulco, Zihuatanejo, Ensenada, Guadalajara, and Puerto Vallarta (the preferred destination of “eccentrics ... alcoholics ... and raffish individuals”). We charted the rise of Cabo San Lucas and found developers breaking ground on the “deserted beach” of Cancún.
This was also the age of “instant Edens” like Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda (the $80 million Xanadu decreed by the Aga Khan) and Mexico’s Ixtapa, “a 15-mile-long playground created out of a swamp with sheer money.” Speaking of money and swamps, our third issue noted the opening of a new family resort—in the backwater of Orlando, Florida—called Walt Disney World. (What ever became of that?)
June 1972: Pack your tanning oil and leopard-print thong! Was there a better emblem of the id-fueled 1970’s than a resurgent St.-Tropez? At this louche bacchanal, sex “is a spectator sport,” and “it’s considered bad form to actually go in the water.”
March 1974: “There’s a rumor—I’m starting it now—that Bali is something very close to one of the last genuine tourist paradises on earth.”
May 1975: In Haiti, an opulent resort called Habitation Leclerc is suddenly “the new luxury spot” in the Caribbean, renowned “for fine food, for flawless decoration, for excellent service.” On the guest list: Jackie Onassis; Mick and Bianca Jagger.
May 1977: “The moment to go is now—if you can get a hotel room.” With Iran Air flying nonstop from New York, travelers are flocking to Tehran—an all-night playground of belly dancers, free-flowing Bordeaux, and bottomless tins of caviar.
May 1978: “Things have changed” in California’s burgeoning wine country. Following an “explosion of interest in American wine,” a “flood of tourists” has descended on Napa Valley, which “runneth over with resorts, restaurants, vineyards.”
October 1979: Is China finally ready for prime-time tourism? Maybe not quite. But our reporter does get a stern lesson in etiquette: “Never criticize a guide .… Never tip (an insult in China) …. Never take a picture without asking permission.”
Though the decade began in recession, by the mid 1980’s—for better or worse—excess prevailed. This was the age of conspicuous consumption, of Dallas and Dynasty, and Americans were swooning over—if not all living—the luxe life. T+L chronicled the era with aplomb: nightclubbing in New York with Grace Jones and Andy Warhol; mingling with Brazilian playboys in the emerging resort of Buzios; and hitting Beverly Hills with Alexis Carrington herself (yes, that’s Joan Collins on our March 1986 cover).
American tastes, we observed, had grown increasingly sophisticated; we were now “capable of discerning real dolma from dross, fresh fettuccine from reheated fraud.” In the heyday of “power dining,” food became a reason to travel. (Another Perrier with lemon, s’il vous plaît!) Cruising was now all the rage. And the twin eighties obsessions with indulgence and fitness (thank you, Jane!) gave rise to a new generation of luxury spa retreats.
Throughout the decade, the travel universe was expanding—to Turkey, North Africa, India, and, not least, Australia (for this was also the era of Men at Work and Crocodile Dundee). Meanwhile, another “it” destination was rising in the East: in October 1984 we dedicated an entire issue to Japan, which at the time seemed to be taking over the world, or at least our collective imagination.
October 1982: Down under is on the rise. Although Australia still “lurks at the perimeter of our consciousness,” T+L anoints it the “destination for the eighties.” We’ll return dozens more times before the decade is out—and by 1986 Sydney is “the city everybody loves to love.”
October 1984: “Hardly a day passes in the life of an American when the influence of Japan is not felt.” In a special issue devoted to the country, David Halberstam writes, “Tokyo can take even the most sophisticated and confident traveler and turn him or her into an anxiety-ridden deaf-mute.”
March 1986 : With travelers—and Travel + Leisure—increasingly consumed with eating well, that trendy new restaurant becomes a destination in itself. (Food: the sex of the eighties?) It’s not all sun-dried tomatoes and pasta salad—we also fall hard for sushi, designer pizza, and an Austrian chef named Wolfgang who’s redefining Los Angeles cuisine.
June 1986 : “You do not have trouble meeting people in Ibiza,” admits our (unabashedly randy) reporter. “Something about the island melts inhibitions and magnetizes bodies…. There is no more erotic place on earth.”
October 1986: On a first-time journey through Thailand—from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and the sleepy island of Phuket—our writer can’t “seem to shake the feeling of unreality” in this wildly exotic new frontier: “I still wasn’t sure I wasn’t drugged.”
August 1987: T+L notes the increasing popularity of cruises to Antarctica, as well as the rumblings of an incipient climate crisis: “If a pollution ‘greenhouse’ should ever thaw [the ice]—as some climatologists fear—the ocean would rise and drown coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles.”
September 1987: Months after Reagan urged Gorbachev to tear down the wall, we take a long, fond look at West Berlin, “the last great walled city.” A mere six years later, T+L will declare a reunified Berlin “Europe’s most happening city—the hub of the Continent’s most powerful country.”
Like the 1980’s, the decade began in lean times. The dollar no longer ruled; now the yen was king. We marked the era of “non-conspicuous consumption” by devoting our December 1990 issue to volunteer vacations.
At the same time, the travel map was profoundly rearranging itself. The floodgates had burst open in the Eastern Bloc, with Westerners now pouring in for a look. But a bloody civil war took the emergent Balkans off the traveler’s radar for much of the decade. Meanwhile, post-Tiananmen China was again attracting visitors; Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were opening their doors; and South Africa was no longer the world’s pariah.
In 1992, gloom turned to boom as the global economy rebounded in a big, big way. Soon all that money was changing the way people traveled, as well as the places they traveled to. Neighborhoods were reborn (South Beach; West Hollywood); new landmarks emerged (the Petronas Twin Towers; London’s Millennium Bridge); extravagant hotels turned up in increasingly far-flung locales (the Seychelles; Namibia; the Maldives). In some cases, a great resort seemed reason enough to travel to the middle of nowhere (what a nice, secluded spot you found here, Amanresorts!). Design and aesthetics were increasingly paramount, as mass-market tastes—and a sudden new wave of “boutique” hotels—grew more sophisticated. By millennium’s end, it seemed, we were all design junkies.
October 1990: Five years into perestroika, Moscow now sits high on every traveler’s list. But momentous changes are afoot in the newly globalized city: “The two longest lines in town [are] for Lenin’s [Tomb] and McDonald’s.”
August 1992: Boho artists mingle with actual Bohemians in Prague, “the Left Bank of the Nineties.” Make way for self-important expats! “We are living in a historic place at a historic time,” one tells us. “Future Hemingways and Fitzgeralds … will chronicle our course.” (Uh, still waiting on that, dude.)
October 1992: In Miami, the long-neglected Art Deco District of South Beach is suddenly “the hippest hangout on earth”—the darling of “European families, sun-starved New Yorkers, fashion photographers, real estate speculators, designers, and assorted pacesetters from Buenos Aires to Berlin.”
December 1994: “Run the news footage of April 1975 backward and you’ll get a good idea of Ho Chi Minh City in 1994: a pell-mell jostling of travelers …now elbowing their way back into the economic hot spot of Vietnam.”
December 1996: Two years after Nelson Mandela’s election, South Africa becomes the safari destination du jour—thanks, in no small part, to Singita Game Reserve (a.k.a. Hollywood in the Bush), which ushers in a new era of over-the-top luxury lodges.
January 1997: “Partly because of the softening effect of water and palm trees and tile roofs and dugout canoes,” writes Calvin Trillin, “Kerala feels like a gentler place than the India most Americans have in their minds.”
November 1997: If they build it, you will come: Frank Gehry’s month-old, “splendidly bizarre” Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, along with Richard Meier’s new Getty Center, in L.A., shows the drawing power of a starchitect icon.
June 1999: Ian Schrager and André Balazs brought cool design and hot bar scenes to luxury hotels. Now, with the just-launched W chain collaborating with cocktail impresario Rande Gerber, the hotel lobby is officially the buzziest spot in town ... no matter what town you’re in.
It’s a new century: put on your seat belts. travelers spent the decade navigating a world in flux, as shimmering new skylines sprang from the banks of the Persian Gulf (Dubai; Abu Dhabi) and the Pearl River Delta (welcome to Shenzen!), and PDA’s gave way to BlackBerrys and smart phones and all the attendant “conveniences” of constant connectivity. Perhaps in response, the aughts were marked by a quest for authenticity, honesty, and a back-to-basics sensibility—one brought further home by the lasting trauma of 9/11, a series of natural disasters, and a tumultuous stock market.
One day, we may look back on the decade as a Restoration of sorts. There was the global fad for recycling and remixing elements from the past into something fresh and contemporary. This retro revival played out in everything from locavore dining to classic cocktails and self-consciously naïf hotel design. Similarly, we saw whole buildings, city blocks, even destinations made newly relevant: the restored palace hotels of India; the riads of Marrakesh, Morocco; the entire East End of London. And who can forget Brooklyn?
Finally, in keeping with our fixation on value and authenticity, we noted a collective urge for a more genuine interaction between visitor and visited, between traveler and local—whether that came through voluntourism, ecotourism, or philanthropic travel. Mindless fun was still perfectly okay, of course—but it was even more important to keep it real.
July 2000: “There’s a fresh breeze blowing in from the Persian Gulf”—and lo, Dubai’s time has come. “Progressive, dynamic, welcoming,” the “desert utopia” seems to have it all: sand skiing, camel riding, elegant shopping, and the world’s tallest hotel.
September 2001: With adventure travel on the rise and ecotourism now “one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry,” we send Marcel Theroux up, up, up into the jungle canopy in Costa Rica: “Just to my left, at eye level, a troop of capuchin monkeys was traveling through the treetops in uncanny silence, the young clinging to the fur on their mothers’ backs.”
January 2003: Following Argentina’s economic meltdown, Buenos Aires is “awakening to a new vision of itself”—and luring first-time visitors/carpetbaggers with bargain hotel rooms and five-dollar steak dinners. For those paying in dollars, “the entire city seems to be on sale.”
May 2004: Like the rest of the planet, Americans have gone mad for Scandinavia—for its iconic design (vintage Swan chairs and PH lamps make a welcome return), game-changing cuisine (Noma has just opened in Copenhagen), and off-the-hook nightlife (go to bed, Reykjavík!).
August 2005: After countless false starts and years of bitter strife, could Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast really be the next Côte d’Azur? The coronation is already under way in the yacht haven of Hvar, where “everything screams, Ogle me,” and glammed-out revelers party until dawn.
November 2007: In the two years since Katrina, we report, more than 1 million visitors have come to New Orleans to help with the recovery effort—and young restaurateurs, musicians, artists, and urban planners are “nudging the city into the 21st century.” Thankfully, the old New Orleans “is still very much alive: in the flicker of a gas lamp, the whiff of a crawfish boil, the caterwaul of a trombone.”
November 2010: “In Shanghai, on the right night, in the right weather, in the right company, pretty much anything can sound like a good idea.” Tracing the dizzying transformation of Asia’s brashest metropolis, our reporter finds “a mythic city, caught between being and becoming.”
June 2011: Borgo fever is sweeping across Italy, as wealthy investors take over towns emptied by rural flight and transform them into village hotels called alberghi diffusi—an act of development and preservation that lets guests “play out that age-old traveler’s fantasy of living like a local.”