The World’s Most Visited City? This Year’s Big Surprise.

Bangkok at Night (Wikimedia)
Bangkok at Night (Wikimedia)

This month, MasterCard released its annual Global Destinations Cities Index, and one of the main findings came as a jolt, even to many of the world’s most avid and knowledgeable travelers.

Of all the great destination cities in the world, which is now the most visited by international travelers? If you’ve guessed one of the usual suspects, such as London or Paris, you would—for the first time in the survey’s history—be incorrect.

This year’s leading international visitor destination is Bangkok, Thailand, the first Asian city ever to achieve this distinction. It narrowly edged out London in the MasterCard report with 15.98 million annual visitors to London’s 15.96 million. Paris drew 13.92 million visitors to come in 3rd. And the only U.S. city in the top 10, New York, was 5th with 11.52 million visitors.

Bangkok, which has experienced an 18% increase in visitors in each of the last 2 years, is going through some heady times. Now a major regional force in finance and business as well as an international hub for transport, the city is also a rising star in the arts, fashion, and entertainment. Travelers are drawn to it for a variety of reasons ranging from its vibrant (and often notorious) nightlife to such landmarks as its historic Grand Palace and its equally grand Wat Arun and Wat Pho Buddhist temples. Bangkok can also take great pride in being Travel & Leisure magazine’s choice for “World’s Best City” 3 years in a row.

Another intriguing surprise from this year’s MasterCard findings is the rise of Middle Eastern cities such as Istanbul and Dubai, which both now draw about 10 million visitors a year and placed 6th and 7th respectively in the survey’s top 10. What’s the reason for their increased popularity? “Destination cities in emerging markets in the Middle East and Asia are expanding the fastest in being connected to the rest of the world through having more flights to more cities and more frequent flights to cities where they are already connected,” the MasterCard report observed. “This will strongly drive the growth of their visitor arrivals and cross-border spending in the coming years.”

The only other U.S. city to make the top 20 was Los Angeles, which placed 20th. But one consolation for the U.S. is that, while New York placed 5th in number of international visitors, it came in 1st in international overnight visitor spending with an estimated $18.6 billion. In this category, Bangkok, with $14.3 billion, ranked 4th.

MasterCard’s Global Destinations Cities Index Ranking by Number of International Visitors (in millions):

1. Bangkok: 15.98

2. London: 15.96

3. Paris: 13.92

4. Singapore: 11.75

5. New York: 11.52

6. Istanbul: 10.37

7. Dubai: 9.89

8. Kuala Lumpur: 9.20

9. Hong Kong: 8.72

10. Barcelona: 8.41

11. Seoul: 8.19

12. Milan: 6.83

13. Rome: 6.71

14. Shanghai: 6.50

15. Amsterdam: 6.35

16. Tokyo: 5.80

17. Vienna: 5.37

18. Taipei: 5.19

19. Riyadh: 5.05

20. Los Angeles: 4.84

Speaking of great destination cities, which one is your favorite and why does it have a special place in your heart? If you’d like to share your perspective, just post a comment. We’d love to hear from you.