Conde Nast How Charleston won world’s best destination

Irene Schneider (center) of Conde Nast Traveler was talking tourism with Linn Lesesne of Charming Inns of Charleston and Mike Dipaola during a Travel Council event on Tuesday.

Paul Zoeller

Of the more than 600 worldwide cities on Conde Nast Traveler’s survey of favorite destinations last year, 21 had more votes than Charleston but none had a higher score.

That’s how Charleston won the award for the best destination in the world for 2012, said Irene Schneider, executive service and survey editor for the travel magazine, who lived on Sullivan’s Island in the 1970s.

“It’s not a popularity contest,” Schneider told a gathering of about 350 people Tuesday at the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau’s annual Tourism Council luncheon.

Charleston picked up more than 2,800 votes from more than 46,000 respondents and an overall ranking of 86.7, the highest of any city, reflecting a steady climb from 67.6 in 1993, the first year of the award.

The Holy City didn’t rank highest in all six categories but it picked up enough favorable votes from readers to top every other destination.

Boosting Charleston significantly is its hospitality. The city blew away the competition in that category, with a score of about 92, more than 10 points higher than the closest competitor. It also scored highest on atmosphere/ambience and nearly topped San Francisco, the No. 2 readers’ destination in the U.S., on culture/sites.

“Culture/sites favors the New York City’s or Washington, D.C.’s of the world, ... but Charleston’s well-preserved past compensates for being a smaller metropolis,” Schneider said.

The port city trailed slightly in lodging, only behind Singapore and Cape Town, South Africa, among all cities in the survey.

Only 19 cities in the world have 10 or more hotels with a rating above 80.

With 10, Charleston is by far the smallest with one top-rated hotel for every 10,000 citizens. New York has the most at 33. London has 30. The rest have 20 or fewer top-rated hotels.

If Charleston has a relative weakness, it’s the shopping category. New York and Hong Kong are perennial shopping favorites among Conde Nast readers. On the plus side, Charleston’s shopping rank rose seven points in five years to 72.4.

But nowhere has Charleston improved more than in the food category, Schneider said. Last year, its rating was 90, giving it a sixth-place ranking in the world.

“You have a remarkable wealth of great restaurants,” Schneider said.

As for this year’s survey, Charleston posted 3,824 votes, a 35 percent increase over last year. The overall number of responses worldwide jumped to nearly 80,000, or 72 percent, by the time voting closed this year on May 1. Conde Nast will release the results in October.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of the story incorrectly reported the number of votes for Charleston for this year.