Where did we go in 2016? What's hot, what's not, and are there any clues where not to go if we want to avoid the hordes?
Mastercard has recently released its second Asia Pacific Destinations Index, an in-depth look at tourism trends within the region, ranking 179 cities and islands according to total number of international overnight arrivals, where they come from, how much they spend and the total number of nights spent at each.
It's big business. In 2016 the Asia-Pacific region welcomed 339 million international tourists who spent a total of US$245 billion. Tourism now contributes 8.5 per cent of Asia Pacific GDP. As a percentage of regional GDP and numbers employed, the Asia Pacific is the world's largest tourism industry.
Asia Pacific Top 20 Destinations by International Overnight Arrivals (millions):
Kuala Lumpur 11.3
Hong Kong 8.9
Wat Arun, Bangkok.
In terms of the source of tourists visiting Asia Pacific destinations China is the muscular giant. It's also an ever growing presence. In 2009, China contributed just 6.3 per cent of the region's tourist numbers. By 2016 that figure had grown to 16.2 per cent. No other country has recorded anything like that year-on-year increase. Over the same period Japan's share has shrunk significantly, from 9.9 per cent in 2009 to 5.5 per cent in 2016.
Australia's share as a contributor of tourists to the Asia-Pacific region has also contracted slightly, from 4.6 per cent in 2009 to 4.1 per cent in 2016. However the number of Australians visiting destinations within the region over the same period has increased significantly, from 8.3 to 13 million, an indicator of just how large the Asia-Pacific tourism pie has grown.
China is also the main source of tourists visiting Sydney, accounting for 17.6 of the city's total number of visitors, a 20.5 per cent increase over the previous year.
Top 20 sources of tourists visiting Asia-Pacific destinations (per cent):
South Korea 10.5
Hong Kong 1.5
New Zealand 0.8
This Asia Pacific data is part of the much broader MasterCard Global Cities Destination Index, the seventh edition of a comprehensive survey that ranks 132 cities by overnight international visitor numbers, where those visitors come from, total visitor spend, purpose of visit and rate of growth in visitor numbers.
Note that the Global Cities Destination Index figures are projected rather than actual, released late in 2016.
On the world scene as well as within the Asia-Pacific, Bangkok takes pole position. The more recent data on the Asia-Pacific destinations index pegs Bangkok's visitor numbers back to 19.3 million from the projected figure of 21.47, which could see London wearing the gold medal if that city's projected figure holds up.
The Thai capital also recorded one of the biggest increases in numbers among the most popular world cities, expected to welcome 9.6 per cent more international visitors in 2016 than the previous year. Neither the number nor the rate of growth are surprising considering that Thailand is the number one destination for Chinese travellers heading overseas, and that figure is staggering.
Tourists joining in the fun during Thailand's Songkran festival in Bangkok. Photo: iStock
Trailing London is Paris and, just off the podium, Dubai. Ten of the top 20 are in Asia, nine are in Europe assuming that classification includes Istanbul, with New York as the only contender from the Americas.
Top 20 destination cities by international overnight visitors 2016 (projected - millions):
New York 12.75
Kuala Lumpur 12.02
Hong Kong 8.37
Taipei 7. 35
Caution is needed since the data is a projection of international visitors who stay in the destination city for at least one night. That definition excludes domestic visitors, and therefore these statistics are not a true refection of actual visitor numbers. For example Las Vegas sees more than 40 million visitors each year. Since the vast majority of those visitors are from the USA, Las Vegas does not figure even in the rankings of North America's top 10 destination cities for international visitors. However Boston, with just 1.74 million foreign visitors expected in 2016, does.
The index also lumps business travellers in with those who are in town for leisure. Only 14 per cent of those who visit Bangkok are there for business while the same figure for Kuala Lumpur is 27 per cent. Even more surprising, almost 30 per cent of the 18.03 million visitors projected for Paris in 2016 describe "business" as the purpose of their visit. The total number of foreign tourists who visit Paris purely for leisure is therefore a slightly less impressive 12.7 million. Among the top 20 cities only Shanghai sees a higher proportion of business travellers.
Over the period from 2009 to 2016 the list of fastest growing cities in terms of visitor numbers is dominated by Asia, with southern and eastern Asian cities occupying 14 of the top 20 places.
None of the cities in the top 20 was projected to record negative growth in 2016. Hong Kong was expected to limp in with just 0.2 per cent more visitors for the year yet overall the appetite for visiting the world's most popular cities shows no sign of slackening.
Projected percentage Increase in Overnight International Visitors Among Top 20 Cities 2015-16:
Kuala Lumpur 7.4
New York 3.1
Hong Kong 0.2
Osaka, Japan. Photo: iStock
In terms of visitor spend, Dubai blows everyone else out of the water, expected to reap $US31.3 billion from visitors in 2016. This is huge considering that the average length of stay for visitors to Dubai is 3.84 days. London comes second on the income it derives from overseas visitors, with a projected figure of $US19.86 billion in 2016, yet these visitors stay an average of 7.7 days, twice as long as those who stay in Dubai.
During their Dubai stay the average visitor was expected to spend $US2050, compared with $US994 for a far longer stay in London. Shopping is a major component of the holiday costs of those London visitors, projected at 47 per cent of their total spend in the city. Among the 20 most visited cities, only visitors to Seoul were expected to spend a greater proportion of their holiday costs on shopping, a total of 58 per cent. If you want to max out your holiday dollars everywhere is a much better bet than Dubai, particularly if you rein in your shopping.
Although Sydney's 3.7 million projected visitors fall below the bar for inclusion in the list of 10 most visited cities in the Asia Pacific region, the city sits in 17th place on the table of top 20 cities by income earned, expected to gross a respectable $US6.4 billion from its visitors in 2016.
The figure for Melbourne is $US4.9 billion from the 2.7 million international visitors staying at least one night, putting it in 10th place on the Asia Pacific's list of big-city earners. That puts the average international visitor spend at $US1709 for Sydney, $US1862 for Melbourne.
If you're looking to visit one of the popular cities at quieter times, the index has vital clues in its Peak Months for Visiting data. In Bangkok the visitor tsunami hits in January and April, in London it's July and August while April, July and October are the months to avoid if you want a quiet visit to Tokyo, although quiet in Tokyo is a relative notion.
Mastercard Asia Pacific Destinations Index 2017; Global Destination Cities Index
See also: 20 things that will shock first time visitors to Thailand