Before the pandemic, France regularly topped the list of the world’s most visited countries, and it is expected to keep its position when tourism gets back into full swing.
Why, we might ask, is it so wildly popular among 90 million international travellers?
Anyone who has chosen to live here, or who regularly holidays in France, will not even need to ask the question. But just out of curiosity, let us try to answer it.
What is so special about France that puts it ahead of the fascinating and ultra-sunny Spain, exquisite Renaissance Italy, and the much larger countries of China and the US?
Paris, for a start. The romantic City of Lights. Many tourists come just to climb the Eiffel Tower, visit Versailles, hang around in Montmartre or on the Left Bank, and to enjoy the thrills and rides of Disneyland.
Not forgetting the cemeteries and museums. More than 10million people troop through the Louvre each year to see just one painting. You could almost say the Mona Lisa indirectly accounts for one-ninth of France’s tourist revenue.
However, France is more than a capital. It has two great mountain ranges for skiing, and beaches on both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
It is also, of course, known for its lush countryside (irrigated by so many rivers) that is good for hiking and cycling, and its glut of well-preserved medieval towns.
There is more history than anyone knows what to do with, going back to extraordinary cave paintings and megalithic sites. From the more recent past, there are battlefields all across northern France, from the D-Day beaches of Normandy to the once disputed Alsace on the Rhine.
Then there are canals, scenic railways, other great feats of engineering… it is an easy sell for the national tourist office.
And it is stuffed full of famous monuments. France has 41 World Heritage sites and I don’t have to tell you about the Gothic cathedrals, Loire châteaux and Mont St Michel – three million visitors annually to just one piece of rock. If that is not enough of an explanation, consider France’s enviable location (it is easy to get to and you often cannot avoid travelling through it as you hop about Europe) and climate (generally pleasant and rarely as hot as Spain or Italy).
Then there is the way of life: the language, the festivals, the culture. France has inspired great artistic movements, classic novels and world-class cinema.
Did I mention the food and drink? Some people come here just to eat oysters, sausages, cheese and stews in Michelin-starred restaurants, and to taste famous wines in Bordeaux, Burgundy and the legendary Champagne. Such delicacies do not taste the same anywhere else.
In short, the reason for France’s success is the variety it has to offer.
You can combine so much in just one holiday. You can be hyperactive or do nothing at all. You can come as a package tourist and soak yourself in art, or visit for artistic inspiration and allow yourself time off for hedonistic indulgence.
I write guide books for a living and whenever I write one on France, the problem is not what to include but what to leave out. I find every corner of this country fascinating, and after decades exploring it I am still finding things that surprise me.
I could go on, but you know all this already. I am sure you can see why 90 million people have got the same idea. Stupid question, really.
What makes France unique? Tell us your view at firstname.lastname@example.org