What's the most popular vacation destination on Earth -- and why?

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Tourism is big business. In 2007, international tourism generated more than $850 billion. The number of international tourists hit 924 million in 2008, up from 908 million in 2007. Experts forecast it will reach 1.6 billion by the year 2020. However, even with these positive numbers, tourism is down in 2009. Between January and April, tourism fell 8 percent in comparison to those same four months in 2008. This decline is likely a reflection of the global economic crisis, as well as concerns about the H1N1 virus, or swine flu [source: UNWTO].

Interestingly, though, some countries are experiencing a surge in tourism as it declines elsewhere. For example, travel to Africa grew 5 percent during those first four months of 2009. This increase was probably due to tour operators offering inexpensive vacation packages to areas like Tunisia and Morocco. Many tourist spots attempt to battle the economic downswing with reduced travel prices or value-added special hotel rates.

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So, even with a downturn in the economy, people are still taking vacations. How do we choose our destinations, and which ones do we choose most often? Vacation destinations usually reflect our interests. Different types of people choose different types of vacations. Here are some common vacation themes:

It probably makes sense, then, that the top vacation destinations on the planet possess a combination of several of these. So, which are the most popular vacation destinations in the world?

Top Tourist Destinations

How to determine the most popular vacation destination on Earth? One way is to see which area or country attracts the largest amount of tourists each year.

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) breaks down tourism information into tourist arrivals and tourist receipts. Arrivals are simply the number of non-domestic tourists visiting a specific area each year, and receipts are how much money they spend in that area. Arrivals and receipts don't always perfectly match up, however. For example, the United States rates first in receipts out of the countries surveyed, but only second in arrivals.

Let's take a look at how international tourist arrivals and receipts broke down by region in 2008:





47 million (5 percent)

29 billion (3 percent)


147 million (16 percent)

171 billion (20 percent)


184 million (20 percent)

187 billion (22 percent)


488 million (53 percent)

435 billion (51 percent)

Middle East

56 million (6 percent)

35 billion (4 percent)

[source: UNWTO]

You see the top three regions for tourism are the Americas, Asia/Pacific and Europe. Before we reveal the most popular vacation destination, let's look at three that didn't quite make the No. 1 position.

China was the fourth most popular vacation destination in 2008. What makes this destination so attractive? The People's Republic of China is the third largest country in the world. It's located in eastern Asia and has a vast coastline with more than 5,000 islands. China's official language is Mandarin, although there are actually six major Chinese languages. People visit China to take advantage of the myriad regions and sights. Tourists enjoy numerous cultural festivals, visit shrines and temples, shop the hundreds of markets and, of course, visit the Great Wall of China.

Ew, Don't Touch That

If you're a germaphobe, we recommend avoiding the following tourist attractions:

  • The Blarney Stone in Ireland, where tourists are encouraged to kiss the stone for good luck
  • The Market Theater Gum Wall in Seattle, where people add their chewed gum to the millions of pieces already stuck there
  • St. Marks Square in Venice, where thousands of pigeons flock (and poop) each day
  • Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, where people constantly touch the hand and footprints
  • Oscar Wilde's Tomb in Paris, where people leave lipstick kisses

The third most popular vacation destination is Spain. Spain is located in southwest Europe, on the Iberian Peninsula. It borders the Mediterranean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. Spain lures tourists each year with exotic and exciting events like bullfights, flamenco dancing and the Running of the Bulls. Spain also is renowned for its tapas bars and lovely architecture.

And the number two vacation destination is the United States. The U.S. briefly fell to No. 3 for several years after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. However, in 2008 it regained its number two slot -- putting Spain back at third. The United States is located mid-North America and lies between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It's the fourth largest country in the world. People travel to the United States to see things like New York's Times Square, the Grand Canyon, California wine country or big theme parks.

So what's the No. 1 most popular vacation destination for tourists? Say hello on the next page -- or perhaps you should say, "Bonjour!"

France -- Most Popular Destination on Earth

The Top 10 Most Visited Tourist Attractions in the World
  1. Times Square, NYC
  2. National Mall & Memorial Parks, Washington, D.C.
  3. Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Orlando
  4. Trafalgar Square, London
  5. Disneyland Park, Anaheim
  6. Niagara Falls, Canada and US
  7. Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco
  8. Tokyo Disneyland, Japan
  9. Notre de Dame, Paris
  10. Disneyland, Paris

The most popular vacation destination in the world -- for several years running -- is France. In 2008, France had more than 79 million visitors. Tourism accounts for more than 6 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). 2009 tourism numbers aren't quite as strong -- but just about every country is suffering from the same downturn in the industry.

France is located in Western Europe, nestled between the Mediterranean Sea, the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay. It's bordered by Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Monaco, Andorra and Spain. France is one of the largest countries in the European Union.

So what draws people to France? Its many regions -- the French Alps, Rhone Valley, Burgundy, Champagne Country and Provence, to name a few -- offer activities like antiques shopping, biking, boutique shopping, fine dining and visiting museums.

France has four different climate zones, which make it a diverse country to visit. The Oceanic zone has average weather with cool summers. The Central/Eastern zone has hot summers and harsh winters. The Mountain zone has snow three to six months out of the year, and the French Alps are popular for skiing, snowboarding and other winter diversions. The Mediterranean zone has mild winters and very hot summers. The French Riviera in the Mediterranean zone is a hotspot for glamour and A-list parties.

Foodies flock to France to enjoy the wine and the food. With more than a dozen wine regions, oenophiles have plenty from which to choose. France is also famous for its haute cuisine and regional styles of cooking. Most meals in France consist of several small courses, and dining is a ritual where people take the time to enjoy and savor their food.

The biggest tourist destination in France is, of course, Paris. Known as the City of Lights, many consider Paris the ultimate romantic getaway. Classic spots like the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Champs- Elysées and the River Seine attract millions of visitors each year.

An enduring stereotype about the French is that they hate tourists and treat them -- especially Americans -- badly. But is this really true? The label is sticky enough that the Paris Tourism office recently hired "smile ambassadors" to foster a more welcoming environment to tourists [source: Sky]. Ironically, a survey of thousands of hotel employees recently named French tourists among the most "obnoxious" in the world. Citing an unwillingness to attempt the local language as well as being bad tippers, the French landed at the bottom of the list -- well below Americans.

For more on tourism, vacations and France, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links


  • "About China." China National Tourist Office. 2009. (Aug. 25, 2009)
  • Chen, Stephanie. "Kissing, chewing -- the 'germiest ' tourist attractions." CNN. Jul. 20, 2009. (Aug. 25, 2009)
  • Crumley, Bruce. "Most Obnoxious Tourists? The French." Time. Jul. 4, 2008. (Aug. 25, 2009)
  • "France." Frommer's. 2009. (Aug. 25, 2009)
  • "Frommer's Favorite Experiences - Spain." Frommer's. 2009. (Aug. 25, 2009)
  • Hagemann, Brigitte. "Europe's top tourist venues hit by economic crisis." Google News. Aug. 24, 2009. (Aug. 25, 2009)
  • "Introduction to China." Frommer's. 2009. (Aug. 25, 2009)
  • Larriva, Sandra and Weisert, Gabe. "Forbes Traveler 50 Most Visited Tourist Attractions." ForbesTraveler.com. Apr. 25, 2007. (Aug. 25, 2009)
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  • "UNWTO World Tourism Barometer." World Tourism Organization. Jun. 2009. (Aug. 25, 2009)
  • "What to do." FranceGuide.com. 2009. (Aug. 25, 2009)
  • Whipple, Chris and Norman, Anna. "What a Faux Pas! Rude Americans Arrive in France." ABC News. Jan. 6, 2008. (Aug. 25, 2009)