Saffron City Brand Barometer 2020

A report revealing which cities have built the strongest tourism brands


The Saffron City Brand Barometer 2020 explores which cities have built the strongest brands to attract tourists from around the world. 

Cities compete to attract visitors on a global stage, many relying on tourism as an essential part of the local economy. The global lockdown in early 2020 brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that the competition to attract tourists in mid and late 2020 has grown even more fierce.  More than ever, cities must build, manage and measure their brand to attract tourists in the same way that commercial companies would to attract customers. 

Whilst developing place brands for cities and countries all over the world, we have seen first-hand the value of having a strong brand to attract both domestic and international visitors.

We created the Saffron City Brand Barometer to be a tool to assess what creates a strong tourism brand for a city. This ranking aims to highlight the importance for cities to foster a great reputation as a place to visit, explore attractions, and embrace the local culture.  

To find out more about the City Brand Barometer or about place branding in general, get in touch at




The Top 10

These are the cities with the strongest tourism brands, earning the highest scores overall in our final ranking when both their assets and reputation data points were taken into account.

What might be regarded as ‘the usual suspects’ find themselves at the top of our ranking. Strong asset scores, often thanks to a vast number of attractions, low crime index and even high levels of annual sun hours have contributed to a positive perception amongst international tourists.


Brand Strength


The Challengers

These are the cities with strong tourism brands that look set to challenge the Top 10 in the near future.

Overall, The Challengers tend to receive fewer inbound visitors and have a lower level of consideration as a top tourist destination than those in the Top 10, but have shown promise in terms of strong assets, positive reputation and high quality of life. Amongst the challengers, Kyoto, Prague and St. Petersburg stand out for their high number of attractions, with Kyoto outperforming Tokyo in this respect.


Brand Strength

The Underperformers

These cities are not realizing their full potential when it comes to attracting visitors. Although they rank highly on assets, they have an average-to-low reputation score, which has resulted in a lower ranking than their assets might suggest they deserve.

Besides leveraging their assets, these cities need to work to build more positive perceptions in order to generate a stronger reputation and establish themselves as a top destination for tourism. Cities such as Athens and Seville that offer a rich cultural heritage and an abundance of celebrated historical attractions must do more to resonate with tourists. Investigating why perceptions are not in line with their offering is the first step in identifying areas of improvement and opportunities to develop more credible, attractive tourism brands.


Brand Strength


Ones to Watch

These cities are the ones we believe will be rising even higher in our rankings in the near future. They scored in the Top 10 for reputation, but did not make it into the Top 10 of the overall ranking, indicating that their assets are not yet as strong as they could be. Whether by investing further in their built and natural environment, making strides to leverage existing untapped potential or shifting the focus of their marketing efforts, there are a number of ways that these cities could increase their ranking in future. By making smart decisions today to improve their asset strength, these cities could rank even higher in future.


Brand Strength




  • 3. TYO

    The Top 10


    Since the outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made tourism a major priority at the beginning of 2012, Japan has far exceeded its ambitious goal of 20 million tourists by 2020. As its capital, Tokyo has benefited from the government pouring money into tourism marketing and infrastructure incentives.

    Although Kyoto may have suffered from the effects of overtourism, the sheer size of Tokyo has enabled it to handle the spike in tourists in a much more sustainable way. With excellent infrastructure such as efficient public transportation and a multitude of new hotels, Tokyo is well-equipped for visitors.

    From a cultural perspective, the growing popularity of the cartoon art form “manga” has increased Japan’s desirability particularly in the West, and the weaker value of the Yen since 2012. It also benefits from the positive buzz it generates from the large number of visitors it has been able to attract. Direct flights combined with the lower cost of flights has made it a more affordable destination. Moreover, Tokyo’s selection to host the 2020 (now 2021) Olympic Games has brought the capital to the attention of the world, reflected by its Top 10 position. 


  • 9. VIE

    The Top 10


    Austria’s capital has established itself as a remarkable canvas for the work of musicians, artists, poets, and architects, both classic and modern. From its UNESCO World Heritage city centre, to the emerging sightseeing opportunities beyond, tourists report high density and quality of art collections, palaces, concert halls and galleries.

    Ranked as having the world’s highest quality of life, Vienna’s public transport, safe and green environment and affordable prices allows tourists easy and comfortable access to its comparatively small area. It also benefits from the positive buzz it generates and the large number of visitors it was able to attract. Direct flights from 136 different destinations in 65 countries and the city’s recent focus on Viennese Modernism have greatly contributed to this spectacular growth.

    What could Vienna do better? With an increasing number of tourist cruise ships along the Danube and overcrowded buses, there is a growing fear of over-tourism. While the situation seems under control for now, a reputation of mass-tourism could be very damaging to a city that has been successfully advertised for years as a premium destination.


  • 16. SPB

    The Challengers

    St. Petersburg

    Often referred to as the ‘Venice of the North,’ St. Petersburg is proving to be a strong competitor to Moscow for the title of top tourism destination in Russia. With its fascinating history and abundance of Baroque and Neoclassical architecture, its faded Old World glamour provides a portal to another time. Resplendent palaces and evocative monuments are set alongside a more cosmopolitan backdrop typical to any modern European city, with emerging creative clusters and a rising café and bar culture. 

    At number 16 on our list, it is edging its way up towards the Top 10, thanks to its high number of attractions and positive reputation. With cheaper hotel prices and a high number of hostels, as well as cheap eateries and affordable public transport, St. Petersburg offers a budget-friendly alternative to Moscow. It also ranks higher for quality of life and receives more inbound visitors, suggesting it could soon be set to overtake not only the Russian capital, but also other cities in our top 10. 

    The past few years have seen heavy investment in the city’s infrastructure, thanks to its hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2018. More creative projects have sprung up to make use of empty palaces and old buildings, and plans seem to be in the making to reconnect the city with nature and with its maritime heritage. As one of the top cities for assets on our list, time will tell whether St. Petersburg will be able to harness its growing buzz in order to compete for a spot on the Top 10.



  • 11. SUL

    The Challengers


    At number 11 on our list, Seoul is proving to be a strong contender for a place in the Top 10.  Since the 1988 Olympic Games, which brought the city  attention, Seoul has gradually been gaining popularity on a global scale, with the rise of K-pop and the Korean beauty industry making a splash in the international arena. Last year’s widely acclaimed, Oscar-winning film, Parasite, helped to solidify the city at the forefront of our minds and, in recent months, the country’s rapid response to the pandemic has also been a source of attention and praise. 

    It is no wonder, then, that Seoul has scored well for reputation on this year’s City Brand Barometer. As one of the more popular cities on Google Trends with a positive outside perception, it is relatively well-considered as a tourist destination. In terms of assets, it is one of the highest ranking cities on our list, outperforming many other major cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Beijing.

    So, what could Seoul do to secure a place in the Top 10? Currently it is not top of mind when it comes to public awareness of the city as a tourism brand. This implies that it has a lot of untapped potential to tell a better story of its unique offering. Going forward, it needs to showcase its advantages in order to consolidate its position as a top tourist destination.



  • 30. OPO

    The Underperformers


    Portugal’s ‘second city’ has often been overshadowed by its capital, Lisbon. But, for some time now, Porto has been gaining credibility and popularity as an exciting tourism destination. Known for its Port wine, and thanks to its proximity to the Douro Valley, it has benefitted from a growing gastronomic scene. 

    A previously run-down, industrial city with decaying walls and crumbling facades, it is gradually on the mend thanks to ongoing restoration works in recent years. Today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts a relaxed charm with its winding, cobbled streets, the perfect European weekend getaway. 

    While the number of inbound visitors is still relatively low in comparison to other destinations, Porto has drawn in more tourists in recent years. While this indicates a healthy tourism sector, it could also contribute to its higher than average ranking as a city struggling with overtourism, as indicated by our survey. With the influx of tourists, its infrastructure leaves some room for improvement with issues such as excessive traffic. This goes to show that second-cities like Porto must be aware that part of their charm is that they are not overrun with tourists and thus sustainable growth is fundamental to their city brand perception.

    Porto is a small city with great potential. It is clear that a lot of work needs to be done to raise the perception of the city and build a solid reputation as an attractive tourist destination. Yet with low crime rates, reasonably priced hotels and a particularly high ranking for quality of life, there’s no reason why Porto can’t succeed in generating more positive buzz and creating a strong tourism brand in the years to come. 


  • 43. ATH

    The Underperformers


    Athens has long been regarded as a popular tourist destination, thanks to its rich cultural heritage. As a historical site of Ancient Greek ruins that have been celebrated for centuries, the capital city has enjoyed a constant stream of visitors. In recent years, tourism in Greece has grown so much that it has struggled to cope and has found itself on the brink of an overtourism crisis. Yet despite increased numbers of tourists entering the country, Athens itself has shown a relatively low number of inbound visits in our study. 

    At number 43 on our list, it ranks surprisingly low for a capital city of such historical significance. This is due to its low reputation score, which may be a result of overtourism and growing animosity towards Airbnb in the capital. High prices for hotels and an average-to-low quality of life also factor into it. While the overall number of attractions are low, Athens has some of the most historically relevant and popular attractions of any city on our list and scores relatively highly in terms of assets. However, the results showed it is not as top of mind for tourism as other destinations. 

    As the lowest ranking city amongst our underperformers, Athens could benefit most from a place branding exercise to generate a more positive reputation. This may be a case of offering something beyond its traditional attractions to create something truly relevant to today’s travellers. Plans to revamp the waterfront along the Athens Riviera, as well as the eventual redevelopment of the old airport in the Hellinikon area, could help to improve its perception and generate new kinds of tourism to the city, if done right. 


  • 39. AUH

    Ones to Watch

    Abu Dhabi

    Despite being the capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi’s potential as a tourism destination has long been overshadowed by neighbour and tourism Top 10 player Dubai. But as our ranking shows, this looks set to change. Abu Dhabi scored well in areas like reputation and popularity, and received more votes from surveyors than tourism hotspots like Miami, Dublin and Rio de Janeiro. So what’s behind Abu Dhabi’s progress? 

    In recent years Abu Dhabi has invested in a range of projects that have transformed the city’s offering to tourists. The scale of these projects such as the Formula 1 Marina Circuit, Warner Bros amusement park and the Jubail Mangrove Park, encompass cultural, leisure and ecological tourism and demonstrate just how much Abu Dhabi now has to offer tourists. 

    The city is also smartly leveraging the equity and potential of its existing assets. National airline Etihad is undoubtedly Abu Dhabi’s most successful export; with a reputation for impeccable service and global aviation routes, it has become an airline of choice for Europeans accessing the Far East and Australia. By offering free two-night stopovers to anyone flying an Etihad route, it has prompted passengers to make the most of their visit. Similarly, Abu Dhabi’s location on Europe to Asia shipping routes makes it an attractive stop for cruise lines.  

    Finally, Abu Dhabi is growing into its capital city status and this is doubtless having a wider impact on how it’s perceived by travellers. It is playing a more visible role in setting the economic and diplomatic course. Like Saudi Arabia, it is pushing its non-carbon economic future heavily, thus attracting new businesses, expats and, by extension, visitors. In parallel, its peace deal with Israel makes a real statement in the region – a bold move to promote the UAE as a regional leader, contributing to greater stability and security which visitors will value.



  • 35. BUA

    Ones to Watch

    Buenos Aires

    While it might seem strange to list cultural jewel and backpacking hotspot Buenos Aires as “One to Watch”, its positioning in our ranking indicates that for all its allure, the Argentinian capital has some way to go in order to become a global tourism hub. That said, there is much to be positive about: Buenos Aires is by far the highest performing Latin American city in our ranking, placing ten places above their nearest competitor Mexico City (45) and leaving recent Olympics host Rio de Janeiro in the dust (62). This is a promising sign in an era where capital cities of specific regions vy to become the air traffic gateway of choice for international tourists (consider Hong Kong vs. Singapore, for example). With the right messaging and investments, Buenos Aires could turn its regional lead into an international one.

    So what can Buenos Aires do to attract more tourism? Where do the areas of untapped potential lie? One of the city’s current advantages is a geographic one. It serves as a key stop off for international tourists and adventurous travellers on the way south to Patagonia or north to Iguazu Falls. To capitalise on this audience and encourage nature-lovers to stay longer than their layover, Buenos Aires could consider further investing in natural tourism. It’s a green city with a lot of potential for outdoor activities; the 350 hectare Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve is a premier birdwatching destination, while the mighty Rio de la Plata serves up an array of water-based fun. 

    Another area where Buenos Aires has huge potential is its cultural scene. The city offers a vibrant, lively urban scene where culture is the main attraction. Its theatre, restaurants, museums, markets, and trendy neighbourhoods like Palermo attract regional visitors for a weekend getaway of shopping and gastronomy, while this diverse cultural offering  remains relatively unknown amongst potential international visitors.

    The learning? By leveraging its position as the gateway to some of South America’s greatest natural assets and promoting its own features, Buenos Aires could increase its consideration among international tourists and ensure that it ranks highly as a destination on a global as well as regional scale. 




    How we measured overall brand strength

    Saffron’s City Tourism Brand Barometer is the result of quantitative research, qualitative desk research, and a global survey of over 1,000 participants. These elements were then combined by Saffron consultants in a methodical and even-handed way.

    To measure the strength of each city’s brand, we considered two separate measures. The first is a city’s “assets”, meaning the features a city has to offer that are of potential significance to the tourism sector. The second measure is one of reputation or “buzz”, meaning how many people are talking about a given city and whether they have a positive or negative perception of that city. We combined the results from these two measures to create the overall ranking in this report.

    How we selected cities to measure

    To ensure the report was both manageable and relevant, we focused our efforts on a list of 109 cities that have significant performance in the global tourism sector. We compiled this list based on:

    Growth of tourism (growth in tourism revenue as a percentage of GDP)

    Absolute size of tourism (money spent by international visitors)

    Relative size of tourism (tourism revenue as a percentage of GDP globally and in proportion to other activities that contribute to domestic GDP)

    Some cities such as Milan, Amsterdam, Zurich, Rome, Washington D.C, and Cusco, despite being known for global tourism, have not been reflected in the final list due to having more diverse activities that contribute to their GDP more significantly than tourism. Others were excluded due to a lack of data, although where a city was only missing data for a particular metric, we used data from comparable cities (within the same country where possible) for the ranking. 

    The list generated above was further refined to include second-city destinations through conducting qualitative research, and finally, the list of cities was balanced to ensure a global spread across all continents.

    How we measured assets

    A city’s assets are a reflection of past successes, future potential and current stability: important factors in any city’s business brand. To measure the assets for this report, we combined the data points from four different asset classes, as detailed below.

    The data for all asset classes are in the form of rankings, transformed into percentages using the same method to standardise the data in a way that fairly represents each city’s position. We then created a final score between 0 and 10 that formed the city’s asset ranking.

    Asset data points

    1. Annual tourist expenditure

    2. Annual hours of sun

    3. Health & Hygiene score from the World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index 2019 Edition

    4. Numbeo Crime Index

    5. Number of attractions as reported by TripAdvisor

    6. Average cost of a hotel

    7. Ranking on the World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index 2019 Edition

    8. Mercer Quality of Living City Ranking Survey 2019 

    For more information on how we measured assets, please download the full report, which includes a detailed methodology.

    How we measured reputation/buzz

    We use the term ‘buzz’ to mean the reputation or perception of a city. Buzz indicates the feeling people have about a city, whether they are engaged with it, talking about it, travelling to it, and whether it is held in high regard as a tourist destination.

    To measure reputation or buzz for this report, we used a blend of qualitative and quantitative data. We devised a survey that measured respondent perceptions of the cities. We also included the number of annual inbound foreign visitors, results from Google Trends, and sentiment analysis scores to understand the quantity and quality of the conversations surrounding each city.

    How we structured our analysis

    We plotted a scatter graph that examined the relationship between a city’s assets and the buzz it generates. It revealed a direct correlation between asset strength and brand strength. 

    Cities with a high asset score would tend to also have a high buzz score, implying that the city is using its assets effectively to generate a strong business brand. By contrast, cities with a low asset score would tend to also have a low buzz score. Cities with a combination of high asset score and high buzz score have high brand strength.

    How we weighted our data points

    When weighting data points for assets and reputation/buzz metrics, we considered both the quality and reliability of the data as well as the results for our global survey.