Some 84.7 million visitors from across the world flocked to France in 2013, far more than any other country in the world, and plans are underway to up the number to above 100 million mark.
But what makes France such an attractive destination for holiday makers year after year? The Local looks at six reasons to explain the country’s tourism appeal.
But do the figures tell the real story of France's table topping tourism industry? One professional says the numbers are misleading and France needs to do to match the success of the United States and Spain.
1. The City of Light
It almost goes without saying, but the French capital is a huge draw for foreign visitors – over 30 million of them a year in fact, more than any other city in the world. What makes it so popular? Where to start. There’s the city’s romantic image, the stunning architecture, the Louvre museum, the iconic Eiffel Tower as well as the simple pleasure of sitting at a café terrace and watching the world go by. European and US visitors have flocked here from all the world for many years, and they keep coming back and in recent years the appeal of Paris has gripped the far east, with mor and more Chinese nationals coming to get a glimpse of the Champs Elysées and its array of boutiques.
And don't forget Disneyland, which is a destination in itself for foreign visitors. With around 15 million visitors each year, the theme park, just to the east of the French capital is Europe's top tourist destinaton.
2. A variety of sun, sea and mountains
Many French people shun international destinations for their summer holidays and instead choose to travel within their own country. Why? Well, as they’ll be keen to tell you, it’s because France has everything, from sandy beaches, to snow covered mountains and vast expanses of countryside.
Simon Dawson, from UK tour operator French Cycling Holidays, agrees. “Different regions have completely different appearances,” he says. “There’s the rolling countryside, great cities like Paris, Lyon, Marseille."
Basically France offers something for everyone. While the Germans may come for the beaches, the Brits for the countryside the Americans come for the chateaux and the culture.
"The weather is a big factor too. “France tends to have really good weather in the summer, it’s hot, but not baking hot like in Spain or Italy for example,” says Dawson.
3. Strategic location
Part of France’s appeal, however, could just be a sheer coincidence of geography. For example, for UK holidaymakers looking to escape their homelands unreliable summers, France is just a short hop across the Channel, a journey some 12.6 million made in 2013. Travellers from another of France’s neighbours, Germany, made up 13 million visitors to France last year, more than any other country. However, not all these visitors are coming to see France itself.
“Because of France’s position many tourists are forced to pass through the country on their way to other destinations,” explains Didier Arino, president of tourism industry specialists Protourisme. “Between 15 and 20 million of the visitors who come to France are just passing through on their way to Italy or Spain.”
4. Escape to the countryside
Around 80 percent of France is countryside – and most of it stunning and tranquil. Besides Paris, this is the part of France most tourists want to see, says Dawson. “The most popular areas for our customers are the Loire Valley, Provence, the famous beautiful regions of France,” he says.
The countryside is particularly popular with those from the UK, who have a romantacised vision of rural life in France, according to Protourisme's Arino.
“The British are in love with rural France. They idealise the countryside,” he says. The Brits enjoythe contrast of the peaceful "France profonde" compared to the hussle and bussle of the towns and cities many of them live in.
5. Food and wine
France is, of course, inseparable from its famed gastronomical traditions and the chance to dine on French specialities, even the clichéd snails or steak tartare is no doubt a major part of what attracts visitors to the country. France knows this and is keen to protect its status as the world’s food capital, as evidenced by its recent "homemade" food label scheme designed to discourage chefs from using frozen or ready-prepared ingredients.
No proper French meal is complete without a few glasses of ‘vin’ and the country’s vast array of home-produced wines is another draw for tourists. Each year, around 24 million foreign tourists visit Bordeaux, Burgundy and France’s other wine regions.
6. Art , history and culture
France is extremely proud of its long and often tumultuous history, from the French revolution to Napoleon and the two world wars, and historical sites are often on the itinerary for visitors. There’s the famous battle sites of the Somme and the D-Day landings, as well as the stunning chateaux, churches and cathedrals that decorate the landscape.
In fact, France has some 39 sites on Unesco's World Heritage list, putting it fourth in the global rankings. Museums and art galleries are also a major pull for tourists. The Louvre alone, home to the Mona Lisa among around 35,000 other artifacts and artworks, attracts 9.7 million visitors a year, more than any other museum in the world.
The Lonely Planet's destination editor Kate Morgan sums it all up like this: "As a destination for travellers, France virtually has it all. France entices people of all ages with some of the world’s most iconic landmarks, world-class art and architecture, sensational food, stunning beaches, glitzy ski resorts, beautiful countryside and a staggering amount of history."
But do the stats tell the real picture?
Despite being the world’s most visited country, France is hoping to boost its tourism numbers still further. Earlier this year, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius unveiled a plan to increase foreign visitor numbers to more than 100 million a year.
Protourisme's Arino, however is not getting carried away with the figures. For him France needs to focus on persuading the tourists to spend more. While France has the highest number of visitors a year, it is only third in the world when it comes to revenue generated from tourism, he says
“These figures don’t give the whole picture,” he says. “For me France is the third tourist destination in the world, behind the United States and Spain, where the tourism industry in both countries generates more money than in France.
“The only figure that matters is the commercial revenue, not the amount of visitors.
Arino points to the situation of tourists sleeping in their cars as they pass through France on the way to Spain, who are no use to the country economically.
For France to squeeze more money out of visitors Arino says it needs to improve the variety and prices of the accommodation it offers, encourage people to stay longer by giving them a warmer welcome, and make France more competitive in terms of value for money.
Foreign Minister Fabius would agree and has come up with a list of tasks to help improve the welcome for visitors to France.
by Sam Ball