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Travel + Leisure readers name Charleston No. 1 U.S. city for 7th year in a row

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Tourism Rainbow Row 02.JPG (copy)

The readers of Travel + Leisure have named Charleston the No. 1 U.S. city for the last seven years. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Charleston is the No. 1 U.S. city for the seventh year in a row, according to the Travel + Leisure magazine's "World's Best" awards

Charleston also ranked 12th on the magazine's list of the 15 best cities in the world, making it one of only two U.S. destinations to make the cut. Charleston came in at No. 10 on the world rankings last year and took the top spot in 2016. 

The magazine's editor-in-chief, Jacqui Gifford, announced the results of the annual reader survey Wednesday morning on NBC's “Today" show.

“It’s been exciting to watch the evolution of this uniquely American city, beloved by our readers for its welcoming spirit, nourishing, inventive food and world-class cultural events," Gifford said of Charleston's 2019 showing.  

On its list, which was published online Wednesday and will appear in the August print edition of Travel + Leisure, the magazine noted a couple of respondents' comments, including one that described Charleston as "Southern charm at its best," and another that called Rainbow Row "an absolute Instagram dream." 

"Its magic, perhaps, lies in an alchemy of old and new, genteel and unpretentious, city glamour and nature at your fingertips," the magazine noted in its list. 

Southeast cities took five of the other spots: New Orleans (No. 3), Savannah (No. 4), Nashville (No. 7), Asheville (No. 8) and Williamsburg, Va. (No. 13).

The rankings were collected from a reader survey that was available online from early November through March. Each city was assigned a score based on those responses.

This year, Charleston earned a score of 87.04, less than a point above No. 2-ranked Santa Fe and about 7 points above No. 15, Washington, D.C. 

The Holy City has also earned a place in the magazine's "WBA Hall of Fame," which means the destination has been voted onto the list of best cities in the U.S. for at least the last decade.

This year's No. 2 and No. 3 cities, Santa Fe and New Orleans, respectively, are "Hall of Fame" honorees, too, as well as New York City and Chicago, which earned the fifth and sixth spots on this year's list. 

The Spectator Hotel in downtown Charleston also ranked fifth on the magazine's ranking of the best hotels in the continental U.S., tied with The Lowell Hotel in New York City. The lodgings also share the 98th spot on the list of the 100 best hotels in the world

Hilton Head Island and Kiawah Island were bookends on this year's ranking of the top 10 islands in the continental U.S., with Hilton Head in the top spot and Kiawah at No. 10. 

Though Charleston has earned this particular accolade for seven years and counting, Explore Charleston board chair and Charlestowne Hotels president Michael Tall said that the city hasn't lost sight of its value. 

“The competition grows each year for these respected accolades and the associated downstream benefits they generate,” Tall said. “We do not take for granted that most cities in the country would love to be in our position.”

Though there is a pride that comes with earning top marks in reader surveys, the rankings also translate to marketing, said Winslow Hastie, the president of Historic Charleston Foundation.

More marketing, Hastie said, should be balanced by tourism management efforts that seek to preserve quality of life for locals. 

"A lot of residents seem to have fatigue over being in the top spot every year," Hastie said. 

Charleston has also ranked No. 1 in Conde Nast Traveler's Reader's Choice Awards for eight consecutive years and was named as the No. 1 pick in Southern Living Magazine's "South's Best Cities" for 2019. In December, the readers of Afar magazine named Charleston as their top pick among U.S. cities to travel to in 2019. 

Tourism is one of the Charleston region's primary economic drivers, having brought in a record $8.13 billion in impact last year, according to the College of Charleston's Office of Tourism Analysis. 

Visitor numbers also continued to grow, rising about 6 percent from the year before to nearly 7.3 million in 2018. 

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Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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