Visit certain countries and it’s always tourist central; restaurant menus with pictures instead of words, sunburnt Brits flaunting their bellies, children playing their Nintendo DS inside a World Heritage Site.
Visit other countries and it’s as if you’ve arrived from another planet, the locals staring and shaking their heads in shock.
Every year, the United Nations World Tourism Organization publishes stats on tourist numbers from each country. Here are the world’s least and most visited countries. Some you might expect. Others will be a complete surprise.
The World’s Least Visited Countries
Annual visitors: 63,000
Bordering Somalia on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti has a lot to shout about. Great white sand beaches, historic Arabic cities, neolithic remains, the surreal Lake Abbe… It also has a huge military presence, so an armed dude in khaki will be gazing down on your sunbathing. People have been exploring here for years, and Charlton Heston shot Planet of the Apes in Djibouti. But tourism has never properly kicked off.
Annual visitors: 52,000
Liechtenstein’s importance can be judged by the two world wars. Despite being barely a couple of hours drive from Germany, no army ever bothered to invade Liechtenstein. They have more banks than people and only four hotels. But they do have some outrageous mountain panoramas and castles, the country tucked away in the heart of the Alps.
Annual visitors: 45,000
This relatively large Polynesian Island has some staggering natural beauty, the sand insanely fine and the sapphire waters as clear as crystal. So why so few visitors? Perhaps it’s the local customs. You can get arrested for swimming on the sabbath, they believe Elvis is still alive, the King actually has a jester, and the King’s grandson gets McDonald’s delivered by private jet from New Zealand. They also appear to have some trust issues. After a couple is married, the groom’s relatives inspect the sheets for blood, checking the bride was a virgin. Still, if you want local experience plus beach bliss, Tonga is where to come.
3. Solomon Islands
Annual visitors: 24,400
These Polynesian islands receive even fewer visitors, despite having dozens of tiny forested islets where you can escape into your own piece of Tom Hanks Castaway. While the tribal locals are also a little unusual, they’re known to invite tourists to any of their village ceremonies or events. Of course, there’s not much in terms of tourist transport, but if you’re happy crossing the ocean on a dugout canoe then do a Solomon island hop this summer.
Annual visitors: 11,500
Obscure Polynesian islands are in the middle of nowhere, something that’s obviously restricting tourist numbers. But Moldova? It’s next to Ukraine (annual visitors 24million) and Romania (8 million), yet only just struggles above the 10,000 mark. This is despite having some of the world’s largest wine cellars, in Cordu, and an untouched landscape of forests, rocky hills, and eternal vineyards. European bachelor parties flood Ukraine and Romania, oblivious to Moldova’s summer sun ‘n’ dance festival, which is essentially an excuse to get the entire female population in bikinis.
Annual visitors: 5,900
Propping up the pile is Kiribati. To put their annual tourism number into perspective, they get less than 1% of the number that visit Iraq and just 0.1% compared to Iran. And just look at how sublime Kiribati looks. There’s no terrorists or bomb threats. It’s just pristine sand, jungle backdrops, wooden sailing boats, and absolute serenity.
The World’s Most Visited Countries
Annual visitors: 47million
Italy has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than anywhere other country and almost gets as many tourists as it has people. It’s understandable. What’s there not to like about Italy? It’s got beaches, elegant cities, Roman history, masterful art, and the most important things in life: coffee, wine, pizza, and ice-cream.
Annual visitors: 55million
Even the great clouds of smog can’t put people off visiting China. The world flocks here to discover two very competing images. One is of natural and cultural beauty, things like radiant rice paddies, the Great Wall of China, and 4000 year old towns. The other is of brutal pollution, chain smoking in every public bus, and an utterly insolvable addiction to spitting. You can’t avoid it. Visit China and you’re always immersed in the good and the bad.
Annual visitors: 60million
More flamboyant than the Italians and more welcoming than the French, Spain is the premier choice for many Northern Europeans looking to escape. The economy has completely collapsed in recent years so it’s astonishingly cheap. A box of decent red wine costs about $1, a hostel bed in the north can be as cheap as $5, and they’ve got 44 UNESCO World Heritage Sites to discover. So Spain? Or Italy? Watch the Vacay Showdown and decide…
2. United States
Annual visitors: 69million
Just how does the United States do it? Despite immigration officials harassing every foreign visitor that isn’t whiter than wallpaper; despite not having anything older or more cultural than Disneyland; despite blasting Cable TV out of every single hotel room; it’s the second most visited country in the world. Okay, let’s be fair. There’s some pretty incredible travel experiences to find in the United States. Check them out on the USA vs Canada Vacay Showdown.
Annual visitors: 84million
Topping the pile for the last decade is France, the country of romance and all the fine things you want from a vacation. Close your eyes, imagine France, and a thousand iconic images quickly arrive: Parisian boulevards, endless vineyards, sun-kissed Mediterranean beaches, beautiful locals, and some country chateau to laze away the days. France’s appeal is universal, which is why it’s consistently number one.