In 2012, France was once again the top country in the world for tourism, its number one spot ensured by the more than 83 million people who visited. I always knew that France was a popular tourist destination, but I had no idea it was #1 and I was even more surprised to learn that the majority of tourists to France (83%) are from Europe. That means that many of the reasons why I thought France was popular may not be true and made me wonder, why exactly is France so very popular?
Drilling down into the numbers I discovered a couple of other facts that may help explain its popularity. Even though France is #1 in the world for visits, it is not #1 for spending. That’s because all of those visitors don’t spend as much time in France as in other countries, which means they don’t spend as much money. So when all of those European tourists visit, they’re staying for a few days or maybe a week.
I also took a look at the list of top attractions in France. Seven of the top ten most visited sights in France are not surprisingly all in Paris. So that leads me to my first conclusion of the day:
Paris may be the best city in the world – I’ve wanted to write that phrase for a long time. Paris is my personal favorite city in the world and it’s a town I will never get tired of visiting. And based on the numbers, I’m not alone. But what is it about Paris that makes it so damn appealing? Well that’s not an easy question to answer, but I think there are a few reasons.
- Allure – I find it hard to believe that most people don’t have a romantic notion of Paris. Strolling along the streets of the Marais, stopping at a café for some wine and cheese and of course seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Agree or not, there is an undeniable allure that Paris exudes attracting people from around the world.
- Great city – Irrespective of the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysees, Paris is just a great city in its own right. If nightlife is your thing, Paris is a fun place to spend a long weekend and if you’re a fashionista, there may be no better city in the world. It’s this great big city vibe that may attract many European visitors, promising fun times in a romantic locale.
- Je ne sais quoi – Maybe I’m a little biased when it comes to Paris, but I find it hard to believe that most people who visit once don’t want to return again and again. Before you start clogging up the comments section, let me also say that I know there are people who don’t like Paris and who never, ever want to return. That’s fine, but I maintain they’re in the minority and not the majority. For the rest of us there’s just something that latches onto our hearts and minds, making it impossible to stay away.
But French tourism cannot be explained away by Paris alone. Of the top 20 most visited sights in France, half are not in Paris, they’re strewn throughout the country. A closer look at the list takes me to my second observation:
France is the European travel dream – The remaining sights on the list represent most geographical areas of the country but can be roughly divided into two categories: 1) religious and 2) aspirational. The religious sights are cathedrals, churches and pilgrimage destinations. They point towards the long history France has as a very important destination for the penitent.
This concept may seem strange in what is today a very secular country, but places like Metz Cathedral and Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille illustrate a very different past. But they also crossover with the second category, the aspirational. There are places so unique and beautiful in France that many of us dream of the day when we can witness their splendor in person. Mont Saint-Michel, Château de Chambord and Carcassonne are all so spectacular that people travel to France just to see them. It is for this aspirational quality that I believe France is so popular; it fulfills the promise of Europe, even for Europeans.
A gilded age of castles and cathedrals, vineyards and rolling hills, great food and even better wine; from an American point of view this is Europe and it may also be partly true for Europeans. (I’m not European, so I can’t say for sure) While you can find these things in other countries, the frequency and quality is so much higher in France that it makes it a very popular destination.
Geography and transportation – Finally, I posit that a third reason for France’s domination in the world of travel and tourism is a function of geography and the current travel infrastructure. While not centrally located in Europe, France is extremely well situated and an easy enough trip for many who live within the Schengen borders. Geography has also helped those from the top country to visit France, Germany. (Irony duly noted) Transportation is also an important consideration. For train travel, there are few more important hubs than Paris and Gare du Nord station. It seems that everyone traveling by train has to pass through this illustrious station at some point, helping augment French tourism. The French train system is also extensive and easy to use, something I can attest to from experience. Not every country in Europe can say this and it absolutely makes a huge difference since many of the 83 million tourists do not fly directly to France when they visit. Finally, Charles de Gaulle airport is one of the busiest in the world. That alone is not enough to drive tourism, just look at even busier Heathrow in London, but the number of direct flights from Europe and around the world gives France more than enough lift to support its #1 status in the world.
I love visiting France. There’s just something about the country that has always appealed to me, even if I’ve only explored a tiny fraction of it. It seems as if there’s a new discovery around every corner, something more beautiful and interesting than the last. Contrary to popular belief, I’ve always found the people to be kind and helpful and of course the food is amongst the best in the world. More than these facts, and the reasons I’ve tried to lay out though, I think the real reason why France is such a popular tourist destination is much less tangible than the experts would like to think. It’s the ephemeral feeling of Frenchness that draws so many of us in and convinces us to return again and again, if only to try to recapture the magic of the country.
Have you been to or do you want to travel to France? Why?