Does Boom Mean Bust?

How 109 historic places cope with tourism

Downtown
Downtown Harrodsburg is one of the historic gems located in the Central Kentucky Heartland region, a National Trust for Historic Preservation rural heritage pilot area.

What happens when you match travelers with historic places? Once upon a time, it seemed, only happy endings. The travelers loved discovering well-preserved cities and towns. The destinations reaped financial rewards. Historic preservation was the ultimate winner.

In some locations, however, the situation soured as visitation soared. Popularity spawned crowding, pollution, sprawl, and overdevelopment—vexing residents and visitors alike. Historic sites began to look worse for wear, their authenticity sometimes blurred by the local temptation to "give 'em what they want," even if it wasn't genuine.

So much for happy endings.

Still, mass tourism doesn't have to make a mess. Some destinations, having tussled with everything from noisy tour buses to pushy bauble hawkers, have learned to manage crowds with aplomb—avoiding town-tourist conflicts and environmental degradation while keeping history real.

Do you wonder how the world's top historical attractions are coping these days? Which ones do a good job of protecting their heritage and environment? Which have slipped? To answer these questions, the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations conducted a survey that rated the stewardship skills of 109 places worldwide. Each is a city, town, neighborhood, or landscape of considerable historical value.

A panel of 280 experts—from fields such as preservation, tourism, ecology, site management, travel writing, cultural studies, and archaeology—assessed the destinations. (The panel's criteria were environmental quality, condition of historic buildings, cultural integrity, aesthetic appeal, quality of tourism management, and future outlook.) Each location was given a numerical score, best to worst. The results appear in the November/December 2008 issue of National Geographic Traveler, with additional panelist comments available online at nationalgeographic.com/traveler.

Of particular interest to U.S. preservationists are the survey's American destinations. Preservation spoke to residents in five featured locales: Ashland, Ore.; Charleston, S.C.; Galena, Ill.; Lancaster County, Pa.; and Santa Fe, N.M.

See what these residents told us, and learn how the the National Trust for Historic Preservation can help communities become better stewards of their local heritage 

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