Ever heard of Everland or Lotte World? Most Americans have never planned a trip to these South Korean theme parks, yet they rank among the world’s 50 most-visited tourist attractions—beating out the Great Pyramids (4 million), the Taj Mahal (3 million), and Stonehenge (1 million). And there are more surprises.
Where we choose to spend our vacation time says a lot about what we value, and despite—or perhaps because of—the lingering global economic crisis, we are traveling more than ever. International tourist arrivals were up 6.6 percent in 2010, according to the World Tourism Organization. China ousted Spain as the third most-visited country with 55.7 million foreign arrivals, while France and the U.S. held tight to their first- and second-place rankings.
Like it or not, theme parks are just as appealing in these countries as they are in South Korea. Disneyland Paris drew the same number of visitors (10.5 million) as Sacré-Coeur, and two of the world’s 10 most-visited tourist attractions are Disney parks. America also dominates our list. Some credit goes to the weak U.S. dollar, which drew 8.7 percent more foreign tourists in 2010 than the previous year—and likely persuaded many Americans to explore within our vast borders.
To tally up the world’s most-visited attractions, we gathered the most recent data supplied by the attractions themselves or from government agencies, industry reports, and reputable media outlets.
So what is the most-visited tourist attraction in the world? And can 39.2 million people be wrong? Read on to see the results.
Annual Visitors: 39,200,000
Tourists flock to New York’s neon heart for the flashing lights, Broadway shows, megastores, and sheer spectacle. Pedestrian-only areas with café tables introduced in 2009 have only made it easier and more appealing to hang out here. Times Square can even be a convenient, if chaotic, base, thanks to hotels at every price point and easy access to public transportation: subways, rails, buses, and more yellow taxis than you can count.
Annual Visitors: 38,000,000
New York has larger green spaces, but none is more famous than Central Park, which stretches across nearly 850 acres of prime Manhattan real estate—an oasis for both tourists and locals. You can ride in one of the famous horse-drawn carriages; check out the modest-size zoo; climb to the top of 19th-century Belvedere Castle; or take a break from pounding the pavement to sprawl on the Great Lawn, gazing at the skyscrapers above.
Annual Visitors: 37,000,000
Opened in 1907, this busy station shuttles some 12,500 passengers daily in and out of the city. But it also handles serious tourist traffic: 37 million who pass through to take in the impeccably mixed architectural styles throughout the colossal building: from Classical to Beaux-Arts to Baroque. More than 70 retail outlets make Union Station a shopping destination, and it’s also a jumping-off point for many D.C. tours
No. 4 Las Vegas Strip
Annual Visitors: 29,467,000
Sin City was hit hard by the recession, but don’t bet against this legendary destination, which got a boost from the summer 2009 blockbuster The Hangover. Last year, 79 percent of tourists (29,467,000 people) chose to stay at hotels right on the Strip like Caesar’s Palace—the choice of the movie’s zany four-pack. And why not? Roll out of bed and onto the Strip to catch the Bellagio fountains in action, shop, gamble, and, of course, people-watch (which can get especially fun later at night).
No. 5 Niagara Falls, New York and Ontario
Annual Visitors: 22,500,000
Straddling the borders of the U.S. and Canada, this massive waterfall spills about six million cubic feet of water—from a height ranging from 70 to 188 feet—every single minute. While there are about 500 taller waterfalls in the world, Niagara Falls is spectacular for its sheer power. It’s also more accessible than many major falls, a short flight or drive for millions of regional tourists.
Annual Visitors: 21,600,000
Unlike harried commuters, visitors take their time in the main concourse of this Beaux-Arts landmark, pausing to view its glittering ceiling painted with a map of the constellations from the night sky. There are shops and events to distract your attention, and, a level below, the historic Oyster Bar—featured on an episode of AMC’s Mad Men—serves two million fresh bivalves a year.
Annual Visitors: 18,000,000
Dating back to 1742, Faneuil Hall (“the Cradle of Liberty”) once hosted speeches by such greats as Samuel Adams and George Washington. Today, the downtown marketplace has more than 100 specialty shops and eateries and occupies a pedestrian-only, cobblestone area that swarms with tourists and street performers.
Annual Visitors: 16,972,000
The Most Magical Place on Earth is high on virtually every family’s to-do list and remains the most-visited theme park on the earth. The Kingdom’s most notable feature, naturally, is Cinderella’s castle—complete with a moat and built at special angles to appear even grander than its actual height of 189 feet. Paths branch out to classic rides (Dumbo, the Mad Tea Party) and newer additions like The Pirates of the Caribbean.
Annual Visitors: 15,980,000
Though not as massive as its Orlando counterpart, the original Disney park—which occupies about 85 acres of land—welcomes enough thrill-seekers to qualify as the second most-visited theme park in the world. One of its coolest rides is still Indiana Jones Adventure, careening over lava, past swarms of beetles, and under that 16-foot rolling boulder.
No. 10 Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
Annual Visitors: 15,000,000
Hand-painted ceramics, lanterns, intricately patterned carpets, copperware, gold Byzantine-style jewelry, and more eye-catching products vie for your attention within this 15th-century bazaar’s vaulted walkways. It has since expanded and become increasingly touristy, but locals, too, were among 2010’s 15 million bargain-hunters. If it all gets overwhelming, break for a succulent doner kebab or strong cup of Turkish coffee.