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On March 11, I flew home to New York after a quick vacation in Brussels, arriving at an eerily quiet Kennedy Airport where the fear of the spreading coronavirus felt tangible. We landed at 1:30 p.m. Less than eight hours later, the president was on national television, announcing a travel ban between Europe and the United States.
As a traveler, I thankfully made it back under the wire; we unknowingly avoided confusing and shifting travel restrictions and airport chaos on both sides of the Atlantic. But as the deputy travel editor for The Times, I began to have a different concern: How were we going to bring the world to readers when we were not allowed to travel? No one knew much of anything except that — at an unbelievable speed — the travel industry shut down.
For the nine editors, photo editors and reporters who make up the small but resourceful Travel department, our job had been to develop articles, photography and digital features to awe and delight, inspire and transport. These features and images, in addition to a growing service-journalism arm offering travel strategies and solutions to readers’ problems, were always published with one underlying aim: to present a rich, compelling picture of the world, whether the reader was planning to hop on a plane or enjoy it from an armchair.
Now we were devoting ourselves almost entirely to news and service that could help people get home and be safe. We focused our report on developments about trip refunds and emergency repatriation flights and reported the increasing and ever-changing list of state and border restrictions. We jettisoned longstanding and popular columns (see: 36 Hours 😳). We discontinued our print section.
When we made that painful decision in late April, many readers hotly complained. Others acknowledged the reasons behind our decision and offered their compassion.
“While I understand the Times needs to suspend the weekly travel section, please keep running stories of beautiful, interesting places in multiple parts of the world. They give me hope that I may be able to hug friends and family eventually,” one reader wrote in an email.
To fill that demand and without endangering the health of reporters and photographers by going out in the field, we started World Through a Lens, a weekly photo essay about some of the world’s most arresting places. Recognizing that many people needed escapes of any kind, we gradually began publishing articles about more modest alternatives: road trips, day trips, virtual travel, camping. We too adjusted to this unwanted new normal.
But what to do about “52 Places to Go,” our signature feature that publishes every January? In a time when the loss of travel is so great, the loss of lives and livelihoods so much greater, should we continue this annual tradition, with its suggestions for the top spots to visit in the coming year? In most years, it is the greatest demonstration of our journalistic aim: to get our readers thinking about — and maybe even heading off on — an adventure.
Doing our usual version of the list seemed wrong. But everyone needs hope. Hope that they will soon see friends and family again, that they will see sights and have experiences that will transform them and expand their horizons. That they will travel.
And we will travel again.
So, in a very different style for a very different year, this weekend “52 Places to Go” returns in print. This one is not just for you; it is also from you.
Last fall, we asked readers to share their most beloved spots and were overwhelmed with the response. We received more than 2,000 entries, about small New England hometowns and soaring high peaks in Asia and seemingly everywhere in between. We culled the selections — not an easy feat — by the power and passion of the prose, and the beauty of the accompanying photographs.
In remote and familiar destinations, travelers discovered their independence or a sense of comfort and home. They reflected on valued family connections, the natural world, the events of history and the hospitality of strangers. Along with their memories, many shared their gratitude.
The result is not like the list from years past. We hope you enjoy it. We couldn’t have done it without you.