The world is getting smaller. It took Columbus 2 months and 9 days to get to the Bahamas and he never actually made it to what we now know as America. Eventually people managed to complete the crossing, but the journey was arduous and long. Sailing ships would have taken around 30-40 days, and although steam engines greatly improved the speed and reliability of these trips (at around a week of travel), it was still an enormous undertaking to cross from the east coast of America to Europe. Journeys that went further and made use of steamers, trains, and other modes of transports could have taken months and months and would have been far outside the budget of most people.
In 1923, Charles Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic flight on his plane, The Spirit of Saint Louis, just four years after the first flight from Newfoundland to the UK. Since then planes have utterly revolutionised transport in terms of speed, safety, and reliability. Increasing leisure time and disposable income opened up tourism to the masses, and in 2012 the number of international tourists topped 1bn for the first time ever. So where does all this easy travel take us? Below is a list of the most visited countries, according the World Tourism Organisation, and although many of the destinations are on everyone's bucket list you might also find a few surprises in the mix.
10 Malaysia: 25m
Malaysia is a somewhat unexpected entry on the most visited list, especially compared with the classic tourist destinations of Paris, London, and New York. Visitors to Malaysia are almost getting two countries in one, as the peninsula on which the country is located is divided by the South China Sea. One island features the legendary, but diminishing, jungles of Borneo, whilst the western area is made up of plains and a cultural mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian influences.
Unlike some of the countries in the area, Malaysia enjoys a stable political and economic environment, and is making good use of the funds from its 25 million annual visitors. Beach, adventure, and safari holidays are all available, and for the less intrepid tourist the country is the proud owner of a Legoland and a Hello Kitty Theme park (the first of its kind outside of Japan).
9 Russia: 25m
The tail end of the various Sochi controversies, the problematic levels of homophobia, and Putin's recent expansionist efforts into Ukraine make the Russian Federation a complicated tourist destination. 25 million people visited Russia in 2012 but whether these recent controversies in the ex-Soviet Union will put off future visitors is difficult to say. With a landmass of over 17 million km squared there is a range of possible tourist activities and destinations including winter sports, the beautiful Black Sea coastline, the domed Orthodox churches of St. Petersburg, and Moscow's Red Square (which has a lowest recorded temperature of −42.2 °C).
8 UK: 29m
Although England is only the sixth most visited country, it places at No.3 on the amount of money spent per tourist, a fact which shows exactly how high the cost of living in London is. England is the home of the first ever tourism company, Thomas Cook, which still operates today assisting both incoming and outgoing tourists. Almost half of the visitors to the UK head to London, which holds popular sites like Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, and The British Museum (which received over 5.5 million visitors in 2012).
The tourist industry is an important section of the UK's GDP at almost 8.6% of the economy (£96 billion). Amusingly, given the long-held rivalry between the two, it is the French that make up the bulk of England's tourists at 3.6m visitors in 2010.
7 Germany: 30m
Germany's massive size, its position within the eurozone, and the fact that 30% of its population spend their holidays in their native land mean that the country's tourism industry is absolutely enormous. In 2012 alone there were over 400 million overnight stays in the country, which works out to over 10 million visitors on any given night of the year. The industry is so large that it contributes around 5% of Germany's GDP, and employs a similar percentage of the German workforce.
Due to its size, and varying geography there are a range of attractions, from Bavaria's sunny beer gardens, to Berlin's infamous night-life. Anyone considering visiting Germany this year would do well to visit the Berlin Wall, as it is the 25th anniversary of its fall following the huge demonstrations of the Peaceful Revolution in August 1989.
6 Turkey: 35m
The city of Istanbul (which is commonly misconceived as being the capital), in the west of Turkey has been the point of contact between Eastern and Western cultures since 660 BC. In modern times the city is one of the largest growing metropolitan areas in the world, with a vast 5,343km² of sprawling coastal urban area filled with the beautiful domes and minarets of the city's mosques. The Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque, and Cistern all attract large amounts of visitors during the summer months, but a cunning traveller will find the city to be much calmer away from the peak months.
However, Turkey's tourism isn't limited to its beautiful city. The coastal areas of the country are increasingly attracting westerners looking to spend a few weeks on the beach, and the breathtaking hot-air balloon rides over the Cappadocia rock formations provide a once in a lifetime sunrise.
5 Italy: 46m
The Grand Tour was the name given to a trip typically taken by very rich young men from around the 1660s to the 1840s. Young aristocratic gentlemen were expected to see all of Europe's greatest sights, and it was essentially a way of letting the future elite of a country improve their culture and see a bit of the world. Both Venice and Rome were essential stops on this tour, allowing the young men to study the ancient ruins, and the masterpieces of painting, sculpture, and architecture.
Almost all of the sites which were on the must-see lists of these men are still visited today by Italy's many tourists. Most of the attractions are now World Heritage Sites, of which Italy has the most of any of the world's countries. Because of this Italy's tourism sector is one of its most profitable industries, with an estimated revenue of €136bn.
4 Spain: 57m
In a country where the unemployment rate is almost 26%, it is a good thing that Spain's tourism industry is enjoying annual increases that see it moving up on China. As with many of the European countries, Spain's history, food, and culture attracts a wide range of tourists from America and the East. On the cultural side Spain has 43 World Heritage Sites, and these are supplemented by its beautiful countryside which places Spain at No.3 on UNESCO's list of biosphere reserves.
Spain's most famous activity is of course the running of the bulls, and the (dwindling number of) matador bull fights which still occur outside of the cosmopolitan areas of Madrid and Barcelona. Most famous of all is the Pamplona Encierro, which occurs every year from July 6–14. The origins of the festival are logistical; it was necessary to transport the bulls from the corrals to the ring, and when this was happening young Spaniards would jump in amongst them to show off. In the modern events, participants must be at least 18 years old, run in the same direction as the bulls, refrain from inciting the bulls, and are not allowed to have had anything alcoholic to drink.
3 China: 57m
Like Russia, China is a slightly complicated tourist destination. The country incites a culture shock in many a European or American traveller, but a few simple rules will greatly simplify the trip. Food should never be eaten with the wrong end of a pair of chopsticks, as these are only used to serve. Alcohol shouldn't be drunk without a toast, and every bill must be fought over, to the extent that it is considered good manners to pull a restaurant bill out of another's hand.
For the most intrepid travellers, it is possible to cross the length of China and Russia with a trip on the trans-siberian express train. This can take as little as a week, but it can take as long as you want because, unlike a transcontinental flight, it's possible to get off at several points along the way.
2 US: 67m
As early as the 1850s tourism was an established industry for America, and although it receives a markedly lower number of tourists than our number 1 spot, the amount of revenue per visitor is the highest in the world. For many of America's states tourism is the largest industry, which meant that the fallout from the tragedy of 9/11 was enormous. The range of available attractions is vast, with over 100,000 different 'Things to Do' on Tripadvisor.
Everyone is familiar with the Empire State, the Grand Canyon, and the White House, but delving a little deeper into America's sights turns up a whole range of oddities like Texas' 60 tonne Cathedral of Junk, a Voodoo-Enhanced cemetery in New Orleans, and Iowa's Albert, the world's largest bull, who stands 30 feet tall and weighs in at 45 tons.
1 France: 83m
Paris Syndrome is a medical condition which mainly affects Japanese women in their thirties, it strikes down an average of 12 people per year, and has forced the Japanese embassy to open a 24-hour hotline. Many of the million Japanese tourists who visit Paris every year arrive with a highly romanticised idea of the French capital, and the realities of the city can come as a surprise to some.
In 2006 alone, the Japanese embassy was forced to provide a flight, and accompanying medical team for four people for whom the culture shock was too much. Although the difference between Japanese and French cultures is huge, the fact that this is a recognised condition speaks volumes.
Literature, cinema, and TV have all built up an idealised version of the city of lights since before world wars, and as a result France remains by far the most visited country in the world. In 2012 alone the industry accounted for €77.7bn, most of which is spent in Paris and the French Riviera.
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