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France still top for world tourism

But China may be No. 1 by 2020, warns the UN tourist organisation

FRANCE remains the world’s top tourist destination, says the World Tourism Organisation (WTO), which compiles annual rankings of how many tourists each country had.

2010’s list is due out this month, and France is sure to stay in the lead, it predicts.

However that could change in years to come, the body warns. The race for third place is expected to be tight between China and Spain, which held it in 2009. What is more, by 2020 China may outstrip France.

A WTO spokesman said: “As we see current trends, it is very likely that China will overtake everyone.”

A spokeswoman for national French tourism development agency Atout France, Stéphanie Cadet, said France’s foreign visitor figures for 2010 are predicted to be up on 2009, when there were 74 million, compared to the USA’s 55 million, Spain’s 52 million and China’s 51 million.

She said: “It is certain that the summer takings in 2010 were better than the 2009 ones, so we think the year will be better overall.”

France’s luxury hotels in particular saw a boom last summer, with takings soaring to pre-economic crisis levels or more.

As for competing with China, Ms Cadet said long-term strategies were being put in place to help France remain attractive.

“The fact we are the most popular destination is something that we make much use of in promoting France,” he said. “However, while we are top for visitors, we are only third for income: there is the United States and Spain, and then us.”

One problem is that many people pass through France to spend time in other European countries. There has also been an increasing trend of people, especially Britons and Germans, only taking short breaks. France’s long-term strategies include trying to attract more high-paying visitors, such as well-off people from emerging countries, as well as appealing more to European pensioners and the young.

Ms Cadet said one factor that will appeal to wealthy visitors is the new “palace” category for the smartest hotels, with the first ones expected to get the label in the first half of this year.

“The idea is to try to improve France’s hotel offer so it is up to what you would expect from the world’s top destination: for example if zero-star hotels want to be one-star ones, they will have to meet certain standards to be attributed it.”

Ms Cadet said Atout France’s objectives include publicising more regional attractions. “We want to help new destinations emerge so tourism is not just concentrated on Paris or the Riviera.”

They will be working with local councils, she said. “It could mean renovation of a resort or creating a new attraction, like a museum, then we will promote it once improvements are in place.”

French visitor numbers dropped six per cent in 2009, more than the global four per cent average. The WTO has described it as the worst year for 60 years. 2010 is expected to show an overall world rise of five to six per cent and 2011 to see about four per cent.

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