The Most Popular Countries as Tourist Destinations

Where People Go, Where People Spend the Most and Why

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Tourism to a location means big money is coming to town. It's No. 3 in the biggest economic sectors in the world, according to the report from the UN World Tourism Organization. International travel has been on the rise for decades, as increasing numbers of locations invest in bringing people in to visit and spend money. From 2011 to 2016, tourism grew faster than international trade of goods. The industry is only expected to grow (the report projects out to 2030). People's increased purchasing power, improved air connectivity around the world, and more affordable travel overall are reasons for the increase in people visiting other countries.

In many developing nations, tourism is the top industry and is expected to grow twice as fast as growth in more mature economies with established tourist spots and a high number of visitors each year already. 

Where Are People Going?

Most tourists visit places in the same region as their home country. Half of the world's international arrivals went to Europe in 2016 (616 million), 25 percent to the Asia/Pacific region (308 million), and 16 percent to the Americas (nearly 200 million). Asia and the Pacific had the biggest tourist number gains in 2016 (9 percent), followed by Africa (8 percent), and the Americas (3 percent). In South America, the zika virus in some countries didn't affect travel to the continent overall. The Middle East saw a 4 percent drop in tourism.

Snapshots and Top Gains

France, though at the top of the list for receiving tourists, had a bit of a drop (2 percent) following what the report called "security incidents," likely referring to the Charlie Hebdo and simultaneous concert hall/stadium/restaurant attacks of 2015, as did Belgium (10 percent). In Asia, Japan had its fifth straight year of double-digit growth (22 percent), and Vietnam saw an increase of 26 percent over the previous year. Growth in Australia and New Zealand is attributed to increased air capacity.

In South America, Chile in 2016 posted its third straight year of double-digit growth (26 percent). Brazil saw an increase of 4 percent due to the Olympics, and Ecuador had a slight drop after its April earthquake. Travel to Cuba increased by 14 percent. Former President Barack Obama had eased restrictions for U.S. travelers, and the first flights from the mainland touched down there in August 2016. Time will tell what President Donald Trump's changes to the rules will do to Cuba's tourism from the United States.

Why Go?

Just over half of the visitors traveled for recreation; 27 percent were people visiting friends and family, traveling for religious purposes such as a pilgrimage, receiving health care, or for other reasons; and 13 percent reported traveling for business. A bit more than half of the visitors went by air (55 percent) than land (45 percent). 

Who's Going?

The leaders in countries' residents heading elsewhere as tourists included China, the United States, and Germany, with the amount spent by tourists also following that order.

The following is a listing of the 10 most popular countries as destinations for international travelers. Following each tourist destination country is the number of international tourist arrivals for 2016. Around the world, international tourist numbers reached 1.265 billion people in 2016 ($1.220 trillion spent), up from 674 million in 2000 ($495 billion spent). 

Top 10 Countries by Number of Visitors

  1. France: 82,600,000
  2. United States: 75,600,000
  3. Spain: 75,600,000 
  4. China: 59,300,000
  5. Italy: 52,400,000
  6. United Kingdom: 35,800,000
  7. Germany: 35,600,000
  8. Mexico: 35,000,000*
  9. Thailand: 32,600,000
  10. Turkey: 39,500,000 (2015)

Top 10 Countries by Amount of Tourist Money Spent

  1. United States: $205.9 billion 
  2. Spain: $60.3 billion 
  3. Thailand: $49.9 billion
  4. China: $44.4 billion
  5. France: $42.5 billion
  6. Italy: $40.2 billion
  7. United Kingdom: $39.6 billion
  8. Germany: $37.4 billion
  9. Hong Kong (China): $32.9 billion
  10. Australia: $32.4 billion

* Much of Mexico's total can be attributed to residents of the United States visiting; it captures American tourists due to its proximity and its favorable exchange rate.

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Rosenberg, Matt. "The Most Popular Countries as Tourist Destinations." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Rosenberg, Matt. (2020, August 27). The Most Popular Countries as Tourist Destinations. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "The Most Popular Countries as Tourist Destinations." ThoughtCo. (accessed August 2, 2021).