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

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!"