How a Spot Gets Hot

Azores, like Iceland and Cuba before it, became the must-go travel destination of the moment. How did that happen, and where’s next?

Landscape shot of a path through the hills of the Azores with lush greenery and clear blue skies.
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The mechanics of the “craze” are mysterious. How does a dance transform from odd spasms at a club to a national sensation? Or a simple chicken sandwich become a culinary icon? Tracing unlikely evolutions like these can be a foggy proposition—as opaque as the geothermal steam rising above the volcanos in Azores.

Speaking of which, consider travel destinations: One minute you’re an unassuming speck on the map, the next a “Hot spot you must see before you die on Wednesday.” You’ve found yourself in the midst of a craze! The shine of the “hot spot” has cast its glow on many places over the years, from Venice to Cuba to Dubai. Prague enjoyed some good press in the ’90s, evidenced by its appearance in countless spy films. And who can avoid the seemingly everlasting Iceland boom? No one on social media.

Azores is currently having its time in the proverbial sun, though the weather there changes so quickly you might not always know it. An archipelago with nine volcanic islands in the Northern Atlantic, Azores is a region of Portugal brimming with hot springs and luminescent green fields stretching around totally bikable volcanic craters. Countless species of whales and dolphins dot the warm ocean waters, and just as many boutique restaurants serve sumptuous renditions of the other nearby ocean life. (Not that I’ve been there, of course. I’m not one of those cool writers who’s actually traveled to the place he’s writing about.)

So how does an Azores break through into craze territory? It clearly doesn’t go straight from ancient geological formation to Instagram trend. Someone has to tell someone else in the interim. To find out how the Azores hubbub evolved, and how these “moments” happen generally, I sought the expertise of some of the travel and public relations folks who help this kind of popularity along for a living.

It tends to begin like a gold rush or oil boom, with a sense of land being undiscovered and untouched; a feeling of finding a secret, even if it really isn’t one.

“Traditionally, what we see from our customers are that they have visited many mainstream destinations, and now they want to start collecting the less traveled, more exclusive destinations,” says travel agent Yumiko Sato of Elizabeth Holmes Travel. “Many people don’t even know the Azores exists, but these islands offer a very wide range of experiences. I was stationed in the Azores while in the military, and I know firsthand how each of the islands has its own variations on culture, cuisine, and sightseeing. On one island you’ll find farmers harvesting wine grapes; on another island, you’ll find British royalty on vacation.”

Natural beauty is wonderful, but a hot spot in waiting also needs to be somewhat affordable and easy to get to. Iceland unfortunately, and then later, fortunately found its own travel interest rise after a financial implosion that rendered it a relatively cheap trip, not to mention a volcanic eruption that made global headlines and filled the airwaves with its stunning, otherworldly scenery.

Azores wasn’t an explosion, but more of a slow burn. Its favorable exchange rate and proximity to other, more well-worn destinations left it ripe for tourists seeking an alternative.

“The shifts in popularity seem more evident with big European cities that have been having problems with over-tourism and even terrorist attacks. London and Paris are probably the best examples of this unfortunate new dynamic,” says Luis Nunes, founder of Azores Getaways. “This has allowed for smaller cities and lesser-known islands to rise up in popularity as people try to find new unique places that are safer and more relaxing than the typical major destinations.”

“Portugal in general is a good example. Azores, Alentejo, Porto and the northern region have been experiencing tremendous demand as they are able to provide a different experience, with more value for money than the traditional European destinations most Americans used to prefer.”

Convenient flights certainly help. Situated between North America and Europe makes the Azores a fancy-free, “Hey, we should stop off in the Azores” type of place (but on a more upscale level), and in the summers of 2018 and 2019, Delta agreed by offering direct seasonal service from JFK Airport in New York to Ponta Delgada, on the island of São Miguel.*

This all filters into good old word of mouth, words which are pushed out into the world by public relations pitches and social media influencers and “Places You Need to See!” articles in lifestyle magazines. PR firms and travel agents look at these up and coming spots like movie or literary agents who are doing their best to highlight their client’s most marketable features. “Do you have hiking trails? Are there volcanic craters? Can you hike up the volcanic craters? Work with me here.”

But the breakout star has to have the goods; this can’t be just some downtown reformation project like you’d see in Cleveland or Bellevue. Azores is a dream for travel agents and PR firms: endless unspoiled landscapes, authentic local cuisine, a vast network of hiking trails and activities, and even canyoning. When the word canyon is used as a verb, you know that’s a good thing.

“The key to what makes the Azores so marketable is that it isn’t trying to be marketable. The people here can’t help but be authentic,” says Nunes in an email. “They’ve been isolated from the rest of the world for hundreds of years (don’t worry, we have Netflix and running water here!), and they’ve managed to preserve so much of their nature and their unique traditions as a result.”

When you’re trying to get friends to come over instead of going out, you’ve got to sell them on it: “I have whiskey; we’ll make nachos; I just refinished the deck.” Azores has omnipresent natural beauty, so the key is not just getting pictures and stories of it in front of people, but bringing those people over so they can brag to their friends. “Have you seen Jeff’s deck? It’s amazing.”

For firms like Laura Davidson PR, that means pitching Azores with a combination of imagery, storytelling, and firsthand experience to that most dominant of Darwinian creatures: the influencer, which in this case means popular journalists, editors, Instagrammers, and anyone who people will listen to (so not me).

“We were able to inform editors that instead of seeing Portugal through Lisbon or Porto, a novel way to do so was trekking to the Azores, says founder and President Laura Davidson. “We positioned these islands as a hidden gem and worked with our tour operator client, Azores Getaways, to invite and create journeys for select media from top-tier travel publications.”

“After experiencing the destination firsthand, they were besotted and became ambassadors. As a result, we were able to cull continuous features through that barter and the interest continues to surge through word of mouth within the travel media landscape.”

The New York Times names Azores one of the “52 Places to Go,” Travel + Leisure pens a guide, Conde Nast Traveler writes multiple features, just to name a few instances of the endless coverage. Breathtaking imagery proliferates on Instagram, causing people to feel #wanderlust and #inspired by the geotagged Azores islands. After a while, someone actually buys a ticket.

“It’s a mosaic of factors that relate to the senses—whether it’s reading about the Azores in travel roundups, saving images that an influencer posted from their trip on their IG feeds, hearing about it on a podcast, watching a video on BuzzFeed—repetition results in transaction,” says Davidson.

“That moment where a destination is on the precipice of acknowledgement from travelers and media is when the magic starts to happen. With the Azores, it was all about that perfect balance of ‘Wait, where?’ and the fact that it was so close for many Americans, under a five-hour flight from New York and Boston.”

Then without even realizing it, you’re a goddamn hot spot. You’ve been made, you’re up in the rarified atmosphere of tourist destinations. Everyone says they knew about you before it was cool and they all have a picture with you, like an athlete who showed up at a sports bar.

But Azores has learned the lessons of other star destinations gone bad—which with tourist spots often means overcrowding, rising costs, spoiled vistas, and numerous other drawbacks people lie about when they get back to work after vacation. Azores is managing the boom. The government has limited the number of hotel beds across the islands so there aren’t giant resort chains as of yet, and there are restrictions on interacting with dolphins that means they’re not scared and excited to see you when you jump in the water.

Of course, other hopeful destinations would be happy to knock Azores off the top of the tourist hill. In email inboxes across the country this fall, editors are being inundated with the same travel pitch, but it’s coming from inside Portugal’s house. “An intro to Madeira, Portugal’s other island chain” one subject line reads, demanding the same respect as its brother, like Fredo Corleone.

“I think Chiloé, an incredible island off the coast of Chile, is an untapped gem worthy of discovery,” says Davidson, adding that “many of our staffers have had Caucasia on their lists—and I think that region of the world will see a huge boom in the coming years.”

Wherever the boom lands, it will no doubt be preceded by sharable imagery and hot spot articles and that friend who’s cooler than you somehow visiting it in the next few weeks. My advice? Take note of the destination PR machine, but don’t fret about making it “there” within some arbitrarily declared “year of X.” Remember that beautiful vacation spots were beautiful well before influencers found them, and they will (assuming sane tourism policy!) remain so long after. Learn from the craze, sure, but don’t let it make you crazy.

Correction, Jan. 7, 2020: This article originally misstated that Delta currently offers direct flights between JFK and PDL. That service ended in 2019.