France is the number one tourist destination in the world.

A well-deserved top ranking?

The ranking, based on debatable statistical data from the World Tourism Organization, puts France in first place, knocking Italy out of the top spot in 1980 (Dehoorne, 2003). Aside from debating how the numbers are broadly counted — since all travellers are counted as soon as they cross or re-cross the border — France benefits from a central location in a prosperous Western Europe, making it a sine qua non for various journeys, through which travellers flow from north to south, from economically advanced countries to those with some of the most popular comparative advantages of the moment: beaches with warm water. The mosaic of nations, specific to the European continent (and to other regions such as Central America and Southeast Asia), helps significantly. An American or Chinese citizen living in the middle of their respective countries must travel thousands of kilometres to leave, and the vastness offers more opportunities for individuals to fulfil their expectations than smaller nations could.

Hence the significant proportion of short stays, as long journeys require brief stopovers along the way, but given our data, it is not possible to distinguish between transit and a practice that would be identified as a short stay, such as a Belgian or Swiss citizen spending the weekend in Paris. According to the DGE’s Memento du tourisme (2018), one-night stays accounted for nearly 18% of European travel in 2017, compared to 6% for non-European travellers.

Mainland France offers opportunities

If first place is debatable, resulting from a happy coincidence, nevertheless individuals choose to spend their holidays in France for real reasons. It should be stated that the focus here is on mainland France, which can be distinguished from French overseas territories, to avoid using debatable and outdated French terms such as métropole, which evokes the colonialist period, or hexagone, which emerged during the Third Republic and was used to condition the people for revenge in the same way the panoply of national heroes and heroines were.

First, mainland France is fortunate in terms of natural, i.e. non-man-made, landmarks. France has a coastline which is relatively warm in summer months; mountains, the highest of which provide ideal conditions for summer activities (contemplation, hiking, climbing) as well as winter sports, which were established in the late 19th century and solidified with the advent of skiing before World War I, and became dominant from the 1970s.

Second, the past has produced world-famous monuments, such as the Eiffel Tower and Mont Saint-Michel, which in China are often used as imagery in calendars. Some landmarks, like the Louvre, have changed function without losing their lustre; the Louvre is now the most visited museum. There is also the impact of cultural production, as in other countries in Europe and around the world.

But all this is due to stakeholders, including tourists, who were the first, historically, to get involved, and who gave rise to innovations from entrepreneurs, who quickly received support from the public authorities. The country has long been concerned with promoting tourism, notably in creating a national office as early as 1910 (Violier et al., 2021a). And yet, there is no shortage of literature scorning and denigrating tourism, especially in France, noblesse oblige (D’Iribarne, 2009).

Not all of France is a tourist destination

Contrary to what politicians may say, especially those in the somewhat overlooked areas, the whole country is not a tourist destination (Violier et al., 2021b). Non-residents can be spotted almost anywhere, and some are quickly labelled as tourists, as a catch-all term, when in fact they may simply be visiting family and friends or going home for the weekend. Others are just passing through, in the sense that one must pass through the middle of nowhere from one tourist hotspot to another. There are therefore disparities, and if stakeholders intend to develop tourism in a given location, it is precisely because tourism ‘turns sand into gold [better than sheep do]’.

These disparities do not constitute an imbalance, as egalitarians of all kinds might like to point out, because there is no such thing as balance in terms of geography (Brunet, 1994, see quote below), nor do they constitute an inequality, a political science term, which is why we use the term ‘disparities’. The different degrees of tourist appeal evoke the objectifiable conditions of the games stakeholders play in seizing constructed or given objects to develop tourism and make it possible to identify tourist regions in France.

The ‘balance thinkers’

They do not know that the land of a nation is not graph paper but a geographical space, and geographical space is never homogeneous. They have failed to grasp that the apparent equality in the distribution of people and things across a nation would be a de facto inequality, given the inequality of resources; that this would be the mark of disorder, and not the opposite. Roger Brunet, 1994

Philippe Violier


  • Brunet Roger, 1994, La France, un territoire à ménager, Paris, Édition°1.
  • Dehoorne Olivier, 2003, Chapitre 4, Le monde du tourisme, dans, Stock Mathis (Direction), Le tourisme. Acteurs, lieux et enjeux. Éditions Belin, Sup Géographie, 303 pages, pages 117-169.
  • D’Iribarne Philippe, 2009, L’Étrangeté française, Le Seuil, La couleur des idées, 289 pages
  • Violier Philippe (Direction), Duhamel Philippe, Gay Jean-Christophe, Mondou Véronique, 2021a, Le tourisme en France, ISTE Editions, Volume 1 : approche globale, 288 pages.
  • Violier Philippe (Direction), Duhamel Philippe, Gay Jean-Christophe, Mondou Véronique, 2021b, Le tourisme en France, ISTE Editions, Volume 2 : approche régionale, 232 pages.