At first glance, the Forbes Traveler 50 Most Visited Attractions List confirms several tourist industry truisms: A) Americans love to travel, but they prefer to stick within their own borders. B) Wherever Mickey Mouse goes, he conquers. C) Paris is the unofficial cultural theme park of the world. And D) Niagara Falls isn’t just for lovers anymore.
But the list also contains several surprises. Since the Taj Mahal—our fiftieth and final attraction—receives 2.4 million visitors a year, several popular favorites like the the Prado (2 million), the Uffizi (1.6 million), Angkor (1.5 million) and Stonehenge (850,000) didn’t make the cut. And while Western audiences may not be familiar with names like Everland and Lotte World, these South Korean mega-parks managed to rank 16th and 22nd on our list, respectively.
Not surprisingly, the French are out in force. How to account for the preponderance of attractions in Paris? According to the latest statistics report from the World Tourism Organization, France receives more foreign tourists per year than any other country -- some 76 million in 2005. Spain followed with 55 million, the United States with 50 million and China with 47 million. Italy rounded out the top five with 37 million (with the U.K. not far behind).
And given that we chose to include domestic tourism statistics, why wouldn’t India, China and the developing world have more attractions on the list?
The three primary factors appear to be relative GDP (recall that significant majorities of the populations of China and India remain at subsistence level), the vast travel distances involved within those countries, and the lack of reliable visitor statistics. We were nevertheless surprised to learn that the Taj Mahal receives only 2.4 million visitors a year, given India’s population of over a billion. And while the Great Wall made the top 10, we couldn’t find any other Chinese domestic attraction that drew similar crowds. Expect that to change in the years ahead.
Washington, D.C.: About 25 million: The nation’s premier national park and its monuments and memorials attract more visitors than such vast national parks as the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone -- combined. The nearby Smithsonian museums of Natural History and Air & Space welcome more than about 5 million visitors apiece. So where did the numbers for our ranking come from? They’re based on the most up-to-date, officially sanctioned tourism statistics available (there were several likely candidates for this list which we unfortunately couldn’t include, owing to a dearth of hard numbers). When we couldn’t find figures from national and municipal tourism bureaus, we relied on reputable media sources and tourism industry newsletters.
We excluded religious pilgrimage sites, such as Saudi Arabia’s Mecca, India’s Varanasi, and Tokyo’s Sensoji Temple, which according to the Japan Tourism Authority receives over 30 million visitors each year. We chose to include some famous churches in Paris owing to their status as cultural attractions and the high numbers of foreign tourists they receive. St. Peter’s Square straddled the line, but there are no estimates for tourist traffic versus religious attendance, so we included only visitors to the Vatican museums.
And though the Mall of America in Minnesota, with all its myriad diversions, received a staggering 40 million visitors last year (and at last count China has roughly half a dozen equivalents in terms of size), we chose not to include shopping malls. Amusement parks did make the list (to our consternation and your tedium), but thankfully there are plenty of tourist attractions of genuine cultural and natural worth.
And finally, a hearty three cheers to Pleasure Beach Blackpool in Lancashire, England, which has been welcoming punters since 1896. After several decades of decline, this amusement park and its surrounding resort town now officially the most visited paid tourist attraction in the United Kingdom. Who’d have thought?
So who’s #1? The Eiffel tower? The Grand Canyon? The Great Wall? The Pyramids of Giza? Answer: none of the above.