19 of the most surprising statistics about tourism

Iran has more World Heritage Sites than the US
Iran has more World Heritage Sites than the US - Getty

It’s World Tourism Day, a time – these days – for much pontificating about sustainability and the impact of travel upon the planet. Instead, we’re going to take a look at some of the more surprisingly facts about the tourism industry. It’s all perfect fodder for your next pub quiz.

Aviation accounts for just 2 per cent of global carbon emissions

But first, a word on sustainability. Alongside giving up meat, taking fewer flights is usually billed as the best way for individuals to cut their carbon footprint, and with the recent “flight shaming” trend, it can feel like we’re being collectively bullied to stay on the ground. All of which might lead one to assume that aviation accounts for a considerable chunk of global emissions. The actual figure, therefore, may be smaller than you’d imagine. In 2022 aviation, when the industry reached 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, it accounted for just 2 per cent of global carbon emissions.

By 2030, one in four tourists will be Chinese

A few years ago, the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI) predicted that overseas trips by the country’s residents would increase from 145m a year to more than 400m by 2030. In other words, it would account for around a quarter of international tourism. The pandemic put the brakes on such staggering growth, but expect things to start picking up again – fast.

Saudi Arabia wants to surpass France as a holiday destination

Speaking of 2030, that is the year when Saudi Arabia wants to start welcoming 100m annual visitors – more than the record 91.1m France, the world’s most visited country, welcomed in 2019. It’s all part of Vision 2030, the state’s grand plan to jettison its overreliance on oil. Central to that plan will be the launch of Riyadh Air, to take on the likes of Emirates, the construction of a vast new airport designed to accommodate up to 120m annual passengers, and the creation of two new coastal “cities” – Amaala and Neom – to lure sunseekers.

France’s number two tourist town?

Paris is number one – naturellement. But number two isn’t Bordeaux, Nice or Marseille. It’s Lourdes, a town of 13,000 residents that manages to attract 6m visitors every year thanks to the apparitions of a peasant girl called Bernadette. It has 279 hotels to choose from, according to – only the French capital has more.

A pilgrim in Lourdes
A pilgrim in Lourdes - AFP

Only 0.07 per cent of the world’s population have been to Antarctica

You get that rough figure if you divide the number of people who visit Antarctica each year (100,000) by the number of people born each year (140m). But even fewer have been to the least visited country on Earth, Tuvalu – just 0.0026% of us (or 3,700 people a year).

More Britons visit the Canary Islands each year than Italy

Lying on a hot volcanic rock? It’s better than Rome, Florence, Venice, Tuscany, the Dolomites, the Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast rolled into one. That’s according to official figures which show that around 5m of us go to the Canaries each year, compared with the 4.1m who visit Italy.

The biggest hotel on Earth is not in Las Vegas

Twelve of the world’s 20 largest hotels, in terms of total rooms, are found in Sin City. But number one, the First World Hotel (which has a staggering 7,351 rooms), is somewhere rather more obscure. The Genting Highlands of Malaysia. It will soon lose the record, however. The US$3.5 billion Abraj Kudai in Mecca, under construction since 2015, will have 10,000 rooms.

And Macau makes more money from gambling tourists than Las Vegas

Another win for Asia. Macau has earned a reputation as the “Monte Carlo of the Orient”. Chinese games – like Fan Tan, a version of roulette – traditionally dominated its casinos, but the last 20 years have seen a move to embrace the many western-style ways of parting the punter from their money – to the extent that, in 2007, Macao overtook the Las Vegas Strip on gambling revenues.

Macau reaches for the sky
Macau reaches for the sky - Getty

Which is the most luxurious place on Earth?

What – or where – is the most luxurious place on earth? New York? Dubai? Abu Dhabi? Obviously, the answer depends on how you are defining “luxurious”. But if the key metric is “city with the greatest number of five-star hotels”, then the identity of the most gleaming metropolis may surprise you. It used to be London, but as of earlier this month, and the release of the 2023 edition of jet-set bible the Forbes Travel Guide, the place in focus is – again – Macau. Said chic dot on the map of the Far East now boasts 22 hotels in the uppermost bracket.

Inverness is more popular than Stratford-upon-Avon

With its Shakespeare connections, surely Stratford-upon-Avon welcomes more tourists than plucky little Inverness? Not so, according to VisitBritain. London is number one, by a mile (21.7m overnight visitors in 2019, the last “normal” year), followed by Edinburgh (2.2m), Manchester (1.6m) and Birmingham (1.1m). Stratford lags way down in 17th, with 271,000 arrivals, just below Inverness (which, we assume, is used by many as a launch pad for jaunts around the Highlands).

And Reading trumps Windsor

Both are in Berkshire, but only one can boast the largest inhabited castle on the planet, Britain’s branch of Legoland, and a picturesque riverside racecourse. Yet it is Reading that makes VisitBritain’s top 20 (237,000 visitors in 2019) at the expense of Windsor.

Britain’s most visited
Britain’s most visited

The Maldives really needs your money

The value of tourism to the Maldivian economy is more than US$2bn – or 32.5 per cent of its GDP. Only one destination (hello again Macau) is more reliant on your money. Needless to say, the last few years have been a struggle.

Tourists outnumber locals by 7,853 to 1 in the Vatican City

The Vatican City has just 764 permanent inhabitants, measures a titchy 0.2 square miles, and receives – according to some sources – 6m visitors a year. That’s 7,853 tourists per resident or 31.58m per square mile.

Bangladesh is the world’s least touristy country

At the other end of the scale is Bangladesh. With a population of 169.8m but only 323,000 annual visitors, it welcomes just 0.002 tourists per resident per year, making it perhaps the least touristy country on Earth.

The countries with the most (and least) tourists per capita
The countries with the most (and least) tourists per capita

Iran has 25 World Heritage Sites

This won’t surprise anyone who has been there – it’s a fascinating place packed with history (though currently off-limits, according to the Foreign Office). But those who don’t know it well might raise an eyebrow to learn that it trumps the likes of Japan, the US and Greece when it comes to World Heritage Sites.

Bicester Village is almost as popular as Buckingham Palace

Among Chinese visitors that is. Travellers from the world’s most populous country have some other curious destinations on their wishlist. Around 150,000 visit Trier every year, for example, making it the most sought-after German destination among Chinese globetrotters. Why? It is the birthplace of Karl Marx, of course. And Montargis, a small town south of Paris, is also inexplicably popular. That’s because hundreds of young Chinese scholars studied there in the early part of the 20th century, including many future stars of China’s Communist Party.

Bicester Village
Bicester Village - Geoff Pugh

English really is the global language

Thanks to a combination of empire, mass tourism and invasive Western culture, English really is the global language. According to David Crystal’s book English as a Global Language, at least half the population of 45 countries speak it. There are also just 13 countries where fewer than 10 per cent of the population speak English, including China, Colombia, Brazil and Russia.

16 of the world’s 30 busiest airports are American

A combination of international travel slowdown and America’s ravenous appetite for flying meant that in 2022, 16 of the world’s 30 busiest airports (in terms of total passenger numbers) were on US soil. Number one, as it has been each year since 1998 (except for 2020, when it was temporarily unseated by Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport), was Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (93.7m passengers for 2022).

Albania is already welcoming more tourists than in 2019

The pandemic saw tourism slump across the planet, but some countries have recovered far quicker than others. They include Turkey, the fourth most visited country in 2022 (50.5m overseas arrivals, a shade under its 2019 figure of 51.2m), the UAE (22.7m arrivals in 2022 vs 21.6m in 2019) and, perfect for budget sunshine, Albania (6.7m arrivals in 2022 vs 6.1m in 2019).