When you’re feeling the economic crunch do you stay home, eat in more and pinch your pennies? Or do you go out and live it up? Common sense would dictate we all try to be more careful when things are tough, but as the old saying goes: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” The MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index helpfully rates cities in terms of the numbers of overnight international visitors per year – and although we’ve had to globally tighten our belts since 2008, the numbers show that people aren’t refraining from indulging in a bit of international travel.
Security issues since 2001 might have made travelling slower and more frustrating, but people are still enjoying travel around the globe. Where would you go, given the time and money? Would you jet to the buzz and bright lights in Paris, London or New York? Or is Asia more your speed, absorbing the zen in countries like Thailand and Malaysia? Do you want to go antiquing? Find rare foreign books? Maybe you’d stay in a villa and sip vino while assimilating the peace of your surroundings. Or perhaps you’re a serious party-goer, looking for exotic hotspots with the best international DJs?
A look at the latest figures on the 10 most popular cities for international travellers shows that whatever your style, there isn’t one ‘average’ traveller; the most popular cities vary hugely in terms of culture, pace of life, language and cost. Read on to find out more about the cities that attract the highest volume of international wanderers yearly.
10. Barcelona: 8.41 million visitors
Barcelona is older than Spain: Just over five hundred years ago the country we now know as Spain was formed from the kingdoms of Aragon and Castille, and Barcelona was part of Aragon. Today it’s Spain’s second-largest city as well as the capital of the autonomous province, Catalonia. Originally founded by Romans, this gem of the Mediterranean is right on the coast, with architectural sites to dazzle such as Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia. This lighted cathedral is so ethereal at night, it’s no wonder there’s a myth suggesting Barcelona was built by Hercules. It is more likely, however, the Carthaginian Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal’s father, dubbed the city Barcino in the 3rd Century. Barcelona, with its perfect juxtaposition of stunning beaches and vibrant city life, has been drawing in millions of tourists every year – from families eager for a beach break, to students maximising the potential of the (very!) late bars.
9. Hong Kong: 8.72 million visitors
Today, Hong Kong – previously a British colony but now officially a region of the People’s Republic of China – is one of the most popular cities in the world for foreign tourists. The vista more than explains its attraction: Besides being a profitable port city with a strong pull for eager shoppers, it’s breathtakingly beautiful, with a multitude of architecturally superb skyscrapers seeming to sit right on the water. For those who want to commune with nature, they can escape the hustle and bustle of the city to ramble in the surrounding mountains. For many, Hong Kong might be an ideal base from which to explore mainland China: Because of its historical links to Britain, Hong Kong has more civil liberties than many other regions in China.
8. Kuala Lumpur 9.20 million visitors
When you picture Kuala Lumpur, do you think about mountains, humidity, and bright sunlight? You’d be right. Exotic rarities, rural sights and clothing that looks like it’s pulled from the pages of National Geographic rather than Vogue? You’d be wrong on that one. Picture a New-York-style skyline complete with twin towers capped in Thai-style majesty, and a fair replica of Toronto’s CN Tower or Seattle’s Space Needle. Kuala Lumpur has a full panorama of skyscrapers rivalling any financial district in the Western World. Some travellers romanticize a place like this, thinking they’ll step into the past. But the world won’t wait for us, and Kuala Lumper hasn’t. Tourists don’t seem to mind the defiant modernism, though, as they flock here in their millions to enjoy the sea and sun, and increasingly trendy nightlife scene.
7. Dubai : 9.89 million visitors
The very modern city of Dubai, located on the Persian Gulf, is within the United Arab Emirate of Dubai. With a “super-economy” based on a seemingly limitless oil supply, this cosmopolitan centre is a hub for transport, culture and business. Some of the world’s wealthiest people confer and vacation here, and Dubai city has some of the most luxurious hotels in the world. The glitterati flock to this concrete mecca for reputedly some of the best night life, culture and food going – despite the fact that it’s the most expensive city in the UAE, at last count Dubai’s exotic luxury drew in almost 10 million curious travellers a year, and it’s set to become more popular with initiatives like the IMG World of Adventure set to open in the city in 2014.
6. Istanbul : 10.37 million visitors
This Turkish city was the hub or capital of four historic empires: the Roman, Byzantine, Latin (shortlived) and Ottoman. Although as a capital it was replaced by Ankara in 1923 with the fall of the Empire and the formation of a republic, short of decimating Istanbul, it may be that the landlocked Ankara cannot compete in people’s hearts. Istanbul’s central past left behind a wealth of historically rich sites – palaces and imperial mosques, and the only water route between the Black and Mediterranean Seas. Istanbul combines history, unique architecture and the beauty of aquatic surroundings – making it one of the most popular stops on a worldwide traveller’s map.
5. New York : 11.52 million visitors
Have you ever seen a Broadway play, or an off-Broadway production? Eaten at the historical Delmonico’s, Sardi’s or 21? High tea at The Plaza? Whatever your tastes or your cultural preferences, New York has something for everyone. Nowhere else in the world will you see intimate groups of people so seemingly ‘mismatched’– NY brings together people from almost everywhere, crossing borders of race, religion, sexuality, class, politics and even height and size! This dynamic city, the scene of so many movies, is on many a tourist’s must-see list. The perfect blend of chance, opportunity and possibility, NYC seems to best represent what the “New World” is all about – or should be. And over 11 million eager travellers flock there every year to take a bite of the Big Apple.
4. Singapore: 11.75 million visitors
This sovereign city-state on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula is clean and safe, and has some of the best social care programs. The education system here is among the world’s best – the Republic ranks fourth globally in math and science. There is no welfare, very little acute poverty, and one in six households has $1Million US or more in disposable income. What’s their secret? Perhaps a simple, no-nonsense approach by the government to bureaucracy’s usual foibles, and slightly less personal freedom traded in for a strong work ethic and respect between peoples of widely varying racial, cultural and language backgrounds. Whatever it is, international travelers are eager to find out, and they travel here in their millions every year to experience the unique order and prosperity.
3. Paris: 13.92 million visitors
Can you afford to eat at McDonald’s? Then you’ll be able to afford a meal in Paris! But just be careful of going almost anywhere else if you’re on a budget. This European city renowned for its bohemian parade of artists, writers and musicians has some of the hottest fashion and a very definite romantic energy. Take in the Eiffel Tower, view the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, or the not-so-subtle, post-modern Pompidou Centre just a hop away from the very spot where Marie-Antoinette was beheaded. Have a croissant at a sidewalk cafe and wash it down with a glass of Bordeaux. Stand on the bridge overlooking the Seine. The list of things to do in Paris is endless. It truly is a place to get to at least once in your life, if you can. Although Paris is notoriously expensive, millions of tourists choose this French city for a getaway. Don’t set your expectations too high, though: Disillusioned tourists have been known to suffer a phenomenon called ‘Paris syndrome’ when the city doesn’t match their romantic ideal!
2. London : 15.96 million visitors
Fancy some fish ‘n chips, guv’nor? It’s wrapped in wax paper these days. Get on that red, double-decker bus and head for Hyde Park to take out a pedalo. Or loiter outside Buckingham Palace, at a respectable distance of course – maybe you’ll spot the new wee prince. Care to see Queen Victoria up close? Mme. Tussaud can oblige! London has some of the best art and theatre in the world, and some of the most noteable historic sites. When you see a pair of geese swimming on the Thames with Beefeaters in the background by the palace gates, you’ll know you’ve arrived. London is known for being extremely busy and crowded, but with it’s ‘tube’ system making the navigation of the city simple (once you’ve worked out the map!) and so much to see and do, London has an undeniable pull for the almost 16 million tourists who visit yearly.
1. Bangkok : 15.98 mil
In The King and I, Yul Brynner plays 19th-Century Siamese King Mongkut. The country, now known as Thailand, is still a constitutional monarchy, with current King Rama IX being the longest-reigning to date. Bangkok is the capital and was begun as a small trading post in the 15th Century. The city is framed by majestic Buddhist temples and has had rapid population growth but little foresight in urban planning. Modernism is side-by-side with ancient architecture and there are few real roads and terrible traffic. The lack of planning has resulted in several financial districts instead of one, and large swaths of farmland within city limits. Despite – or perhaps because of – this potentially odd mismatch, Bangkok is now the most popular tourist city in the world. Perhaps the mix of old and new accentuates Bangkok’s charm, and the Chao Phraya River running through it all accentuates the beauty.
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