French tourism figures reached a new record in 2018 despite weeks of violent “yellow vest” protests that caused a late slump, the national statistics institute (INSEE) said on Tuesday.
Foreign visitors fuelled the surge, with large increases in Italian, Spanish and German visitors reported by accommodation providers.
The surge came in a year “marked by large-scale nationwide social movements on two occasions,” INSEE noted, referring to two months of rolling rail strikes between April to June and the “yellow vest” anti-government protests that began in mid-November.
But even with rail strikes and violent protests, there are several key reasons why France remains so popular.
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.
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 (not to mention the stunning sunsets).
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 destination.
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 come for the countryside and 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 homeland's unreliable summers, France is just a short hop across the Channel.
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 romanticised 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 enjoy the contrast of the peaceful “France profonde” compared to the hustle and bustle of the towns and cities many of them live in.
5. Food and wine
France is, of course, inseparable from its famed gastronomic traditions and the chance to dine on French specialties, even the clichéd snails or steak tartare are 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,.
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 are 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.”
A version of this article was published in 2018.