What is the world's favourite holiday destination?
- 4 August 2013
- From the section Magazine
For many people the holiday season has arrived. Where do those travelling abroad go? UN figures suggest that France had more foreign visitors than any other country in 2012, while the most visited capital city is now, according to one study, Bangkok.
A recent study by the United Nations World Tourism Organization revealed that 83 million people visited La Belle France last year, even more than its population of 66 million.
The lure of Alpine ski stations and Mediterranean resorts ensure that it has kept its top spot for every year that statistics have been produced.
France attracts at least 16 million more visitors than the United States in second place, with China, Spain and Italy completing the top five most visited countries.
Yet despite its overwhelming popularity as a holiday destination it seems that the French have a problem convincing visitors to part with their cash.
Tourism contributes 7% towards the country's gross domestic product, more than the car industry. But the average amount of money every visitor spends - US $646 (£423) - lags way behind every other country in the top 10 most visited list, bar Russia.
Visitors spend on average $1,884 (£1,230) in the US, $1,253 (£820) in Germany and $1,249 (£815) in the UK. Visitors to Macau, the south-east Asian destination known for its casinos, spend a staggering $3,213 (£2,100) each.
Some 83% of France's visitors come from other European countries, which may explain the relatively low amount spent per head. A lot of them come from neighbouring countries and often choose to camp and buy food from supermarkets, rather than filling the coffers of hotel and restaurant owners.
By contrast, only 55% of overseas visitors to the US come via their two immediate neighbours - Canada and Mexico - and according to the US Travel Association, the other 45% - the long-haul travellers - contribute 78% of all tourist expenditure, probably partly because they stay an average of 18 days.
The French capital may be known as the "City of Love", but only 16.8% of visitors to France visited Paris, according to the UN study.
And with the French economy in recession and the unemployment rate in double figures, there is a need to encourage tourists to stay longer and spend more money.
"The average stay in Paris is 2.7 nights. We know that Europeans spend two nights and that people from Asia and North America spend over a week," says Francois Navarro from the Ile-de-France tourist authority, which includes the Paris region.
"Our objective is to make visitors stay longer because if they do they'll spend more money on accommodation, in restaurants and on shopping. So we need to organise huge events. The Olympic Games is an objective for us," he says.
Efforts are also being made to try to make Paris a more welcoming city. The Paris Chamber of Commerce has joined forces with the city's Regional Tourism Committee to create a guide for people who work in hospitality called Do You Speak Touriste?
It includes key phrases in a number of languages as well as tips on addressing visitors from around the world. The British like to be called by their first names, it says, while Germans like to shake hands and the Chinese are happy with a simple smile and a hello in their language.
But how reliable are these tourism statistics? John Kester is manager for tourism trends and marketing at the United Nations World Tourism Organization: "The quality and depth of statistics varies a lot country by country.
"Typically the data is supplied to the UN from countries statistical offices, tourism ministries and central banks.
"We're keen to develop some of the methodology and provide training programmes to countries in Africa and Central America to help them improve the standard of statistics that they provide."
When it comes to the most-visited capital in the world Bangkok comes out on top, according to estimates from Mastercard. The Thai capital is currently attracting 15.98 million visitors a year, narrowly ahead of London.
In 2012 it was the other way round, but Bangkok's visitor numbers have been rising rapidly - largely thanks to Chinese tourists, it seems.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand attributes the rise in popularity to the film Lost in Thailand, which overtook Avatar last year to become China's highest grossing film. A follow-up to 2010's Lost on Journey, the film follows the trials and tribulations of two competing businessmen as they travel across the country.