France was confirmed as the most visited country in the world this month – and by a huge margin. So why is this non-English speaking nation, with a reputation for insularity, so popular?
Earlier in August, the French government released its official tourism figures, several months after other countries submitted theirs to the UN's World Tourism Organisation. Was there a little Gallic nonchalance in the tardy release, perhaps? If so, it was well deserved. They recorded 84.7 million visitors to their country last year, a figure so staggeringly high that nowhere else even comes close. No other nation surpassed the 70 million mark, with the US in second place (69.8 million), and plucky Britain in eighth place, with 31.2 million people heading there – not that much more than a third of the total going to France. Looked at another way, that means one country garners around eight per cent of the world's total number of international tourists (around 1.087 billion last year). How bonkers is that?
So how did a nation – not always renowned for the warmth of its welcome, and where English, the world language, is far from guaranteed to be spoken – perch on so high a pedestal? Here, we delve into a few of the reasons why.
1. Europeans love it - so it must be great
According to official statistics, tourism from within Europe accounts for almost 83 per cent of visitors. They're flocking into the country from Germany, which has the highest number of Francophiles at 13 million in 2013, according to official government figures, Belgium (10.5 million), Italy (7.8 million), and many other places besides. Even the Brits love it. According to the Foreign Office, 17.1 million British nationals go to France every year. Meanwhile the French authorities put it at 12.6 million, while our own Office of National Statistics (ONS) – which one would hope is the most reliable source – believes there were 8.85 million visits (both leisure and business) made to the country in 2013.
2. The number of borders
France shares borders with eight different nations, which means it's even easier for all those Francophiles to pop over. It's hardly arduous for Aussie visitors staying in Britain either, with Eurostar, Eurotunnel, and a relentless procession of ferries linking us to mainland Europe. France is not, however, the country with the most borders in Europe. Germany actually has nine (Denmark, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) – but has suffered from something of an image problem among visitors for many years (a perception, incidentally, that at last seems to be shifting). And Russia and China have a whopping 14 borders each – both welcome a notable number of tourists, but nowhere near as many as France.
3. They'll always have Paris
"Paris is always a good idea", says Audrey Hepburn in the 1954 movie, Sabrina. As her character intimated, Paris has been the most romantic destination in the world in the popular imagination for time immemorial, a perception reinforced by films such as Amelie in more recent years. But recently it's had stiff competition from its outre-manche rival, London, when it comes to visitor numbers – backed up by some fighting talk from the London mayor, Boris Johnson.
4. The weather
Abta attributes part of France's appeal to "a mild climate in the months of spring and autumn." And then, there are the lovely, warm summers, attracting waves of sun-seekers every year.
"Of the 60 per cent of French people who go away on holiday, some 80 per cent stay within their own country," points out Anthony Peregrine, who is The Telegraph London Travel Provence expert. "Could there be a better advert for the place as a vacation destination?"
5. The heritage sites
We're talking quality, not quantity here. France actually lags behind some countries in terms of the sheer number of UNESCO World Heritage sites (Italy has the most, with France in fourth place). But it's the profile and raw appeal that counts, as Anthony again points out.
"Few other nations have so well looked after their past – cathedrals, châteaux and what-have-you – so that it's present in the present," says Anthony. "Then again, few other nations, also, are so little talented in presenting this past in an engrossing, or even interesting, manner. But sites like the Loire châteaux or Mont St Michel are strong enough to resist even the French drive to crashing historical tedium. So we all go all the same."
6. The burgeoning Chinese market
This is perhaps not as big a factor as you may have thought – but the French have done much better than the UK at encouraging visitors from China, a big-spending market with enormous potential. Last year, there were 1.7million visitors from China, up a whopping 23.4 per cent on 2012. It's almost 10 times the amount of Chinese tourists attracted to the UK at the same time, with many put off by red tape and tricky-to-come-by visas – a situation that the Home Office is at least attempting to remedy, if a little belatedly.
7. The fine dining
In 2010, France was the first nation to have its gastronomy recognised by UNESCO as "intangible cultural heritage", reinforcing the imperious reputation of French cuisine. But is it still the case, or is it just stubborn reputation? Luxembourg actually has more Michelin stars per capita. And the opening of a Burger King in Paris caused much more of a fuss than you would credit for a nation so proud of its culinary heritage. That perception also has some fierce critics among writers.
8. The fine wine
Yes, those young guns in the New World are giving France a run for its money on the wine-making front. But will sparkling wine ever have the same cachet (a French word, perhaps not entirely coincidentally), as Champagne? Or claret? Burgundy? The list goes on…
9. English-language friendliness
This one is up for debate. A spokesman for the Association of British Travel Organisers to France (ABTOF), wrote to me: "As a country France is fully equipped for welcoming tourists. Tourist information centres are everywhere, most attractions are multilingual or have audio guides in multiple languages."
Well, that may be so, but we're not sure all visitors to Paris find quite so "fully equipped". Certainly not The Telegraph, London Travel's Joanna Symons, who recently advised British visitors against asking directions in the city: "Don't do so unless you're prepared for a cold shower of Parisian scorn. Locals will either ignore you completely, look at you as if you've just crawled from under the nearest kerbstone or answer in impenetrable rapid-fire French – then walk off before you can ask them to repeat it. If you do get lost, look for another tourist to help you."
Perhaps, Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister in the early 20th century offered a clue as to why, once saying: "English is just badly pronounced French."
10. The sheer diversity
ABTOF explains: "One country can offer three very different coastlines (channel, western and Mediterranean), several mountain ranges (Alps, Pyrenees, Jura, Massif Central and extinct volcanos in the Auvergne), a very wide spectrum of food, wines and beers, different climates."
Anthony, meanwhile, becomes positively lyrical on this subject: "France is the whole of Europe in one country. It has the lot, both physically (mountains, rivers, coastlines both Atlantic & Med, lakes, plains, great estuaries and anything else you might need, bar icebergs) and culturally. From the German and Flemish-influenced north, by way of Celts in Brittany, Basques, Catalans being noisy about rugby and Perpignan, Spaniards roaming Languedoc and as much Italian incursion as you need on the Côte-d'Azur – not to mention a whole swathe of frankly French French in the middle – you couldn't want for more. And all that translates into a rich tapestry (are tapestries ever anything else?) of different foods, wines, drinks, traditions, music and, God help us, folk-dancing."
Travel from Strasbourg in the far north-east, with its choucroute, beer, riesling and outrageous head-gear (black bows like crows pinned to young girls' heads) all the way to Basque Bayonne in the deep south-west, full of chipirones stuffed squid, cured ham, berets and dark fellows in white playing pelota – and you've experienced more brands of foreignness than any other European country can provide.
11. First World War and D-Day anniversaries
This doesn't actually count so much for 2013, the year for which results have just been confirmed. But the Normandy tourist board is already reporting record visitors this year, with intense interest on both sides of the Channel. It certainly won't harm the 2014 figures.
12. It's on the way to a lot of places
Yes, millions of people are going to France. But a lot of them are also heading elsewhere.
Again, Anthony explains: "A good proportion of the zillions of tourists claimed by France are, in truth, passing through en route to Spain, Italy or even more distant foreign parts. If these good people spend one night in France, they get counted into the total."
13. The mountains (and some excellent skiing)
The mountain ranges are varied, and they make France one of the world's biggest destinations for skiing. The 2014 "International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism" said: "France, the United States and Spain are the countries with the most foreign tourists, but it is only in France that they provide a noticeable benefit to ski resorts."
14. Good transport links
The French TGVs have been the envy of the world, whisking passengers from one end of the country to the next in a fraction of the time it takes in other parts of the world like in the UK and Australia (when there are no strikes, of course). And if you're not on the train, the roads outside Paris are much often much emptier and freer flowing. Some even believe the road manners much improved these days.Why we need a driving lesson from the French
15. The women
This theory, which we expect may meet a little opposition, is expounded by Anthony, despite the minor risk of alienating approximately 200 other nation states. He writes: "The number one answer is so many people go to France is, obviously, French women. I have one of my own at home, so have to say that. But it remains true. While there is the slightest chance of sharing a funiculaire with Emmanuelle Béart, Vanessa Paradis or Marion Cotillard – better still, all three together – people will always be queuing."
The Telegraph, London