Almost a year ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic raced around the world, I thought of writing to you about the countries that seem to perpetually be on annual lists of the “most beautiful in the world”—nations such as Costa Rica, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway and Kenya. But after what we all experienced in 2020, I’m finding that such rankings are too flat; too simplified for how we’ll choose the destinations we want to visit in the future.
Because beauty is somewhat subjective and a hard thing to judge, many publishers of such lists rely on the World Economic Forum’s annual Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report, a survey that grades the world’s countries based on various factors ranging from their “business environments” to natural resources to safety. The natural resources component takes into consideration qualities such as total known species of animals, number of natural UNESCO World Heritage sites and the percentage of nationally protected areas. Other list publishers poll travel editors for their personal picks. Some interview travel-guide readers.
I don’t believe, however, that such lists fit our aspirations for travel anymore, because I think this year the idea of beauty itself has expanded. Forced to stay home and venture out only as far as our own backyards or local parks, we’ve discovered that there are beautiful colonies of coneflowers and comely communities of creatures close by. The most beautiful place in the world for you right now might only hold a few plants of miniature-but-mighty monarch butterflies or a field of lovely lupines.
So, as I see it, there are two major problems with the Most Beautiful Countries in the World lists, in what we hope will soon be a post-pandemic world.
1. Words that previously were used to describe a beautiful place no longer fit
The following adjectives are commonly used to describe a “beautiful place”:
Otherworldly: of, relating to or resembling that of a world other than the actual world; one more beautiful or imaginative.
Panoramic: showing a full or wide view; comprehensive in scope or range of coverage.
Picture-postcard: a place that is extremely attractive; another term for picturesque (see below).
Picturesque: attractive; charming in appearance; vivid, suggesting a painted scene.
Pretty: pleasing by delicacy or grace; having conventionally accepted elements of beauty.
Uninterrupted: not blocked, stopped or hidden by anything, so that you can see a long way.
Unspoiled: not damaged or ruined; not changed in ways that make it less beautiful or enjoyable.
These words are all about the look of a place and have nothing to do with how those locations make us feel or how we might be able to interact with them on a deeper level. For 2021, I think travel will not be so much about the appearances of the places we visit but how we enter into them and then depart from them after we pass through.
I think we’ll be more mindful of the effects that we have—good or bad—on the places we visit. I hope we’ll consider going to sites that aren’t overly trafficked. The new “most beautiful places in the world” could be those where our presence as travelers preserves traditional practices and products, while promoting the ever-evolving cultural changes that communities strive for in order to make their nations more caring and resilient for all residents.
I came up with some alternative terms that I think might come closer to our newly minted notions of what makes a country beautiful:
Rumpled-green: a place where you feel completely comfortable (as if you’re wearing a pair of worn jeans or a rumpled shirt) and that is lush and verdant.
Science-supporting: here, science is at the forefront of conservation issues, and people are allowed to help in such endeavors, such as aiding researchers as they try to determine the effects of climate change on biodiversity. In 2020, many scientists couldn’t reach their study sites and lost an entire year’s worth of data. In a science-supporting place, you can connect with local people and enjoy nature by engaging in science projects.
Shopping-secure: products that you purchase in these countries are actually crafted or designed in those destinations; they ensure that no one was underpaid or overworked in the process.
Star-filled: a place that makes you feel small—while still making you believe that you are part of something much larger than yourself and your everyday routines.
Vastly various: when you hike or walk through these spots, your path will have dips and inclines, trees and open meadows, and marshes and plains that vary in amount, degree and scope; they are the antithesis of monocultures.
Wildlife-weighted: attractive, because you can view wildlife on its own terms; growing your respect for the fragility and interdependence between humans and nature. In such beautiful places, you can observe animals—from whale-watching to wolf-tracking—in their rightful habitats, at a safe distance and with expert guides.
Wintry: far from cold or austere, “wintry” places are those that will withstand a warming planet; in these places, you feel hopeful for the future of the planet.
2. There can be no list, because there’s really only one “most beautiful” country in the world
This is a concept that can be best demonstrated by a particular Russian folktale. The story was recorded in a 1945 children’s book titled My Mother Is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Becky Reyher.
The yarn goes like this: it’s harvest time, and all the villagers for miles around are reaping the wheat. A six-year-old girl named Varya takes a moment to escape the hot sun and falls asleep next to a wheat stack. When she awakes, she cannot find her mother.
She finally stumbles upon a group of villagers she doesn’t recognize and tells them that she has lost her mother. She begins to cry. The villagers ask, “Who is your mama?” Varya answers, “My mother is the most beautiful woman in the world.” The village leader then orders the boys to run to all the houses and to bring back all the beautiful women they can find.
When the women arrive, each one goes to the leader in turn, proud to have been chosen as a “beautiful woman.” But Varya claims that none of them are her mother. Then, a breathless, ample and plain woman comes running up to the crowd and throws her arms around Varya. She hugs her mother back. The village leader reminds the people: “We do not love people because they are beautiful; but they seem beautiful to us because we love them.”
“Most beautiful countries” lists aren’t possible
That’s why, I think, there can be no list of the “40 (or 50) Most Beautiful Countries in the World.” Only you can decide which ones fill your eyes with stars, make you feel comfortable in your own skin and overwhelm your spirit with hope.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,