If you were one of the 89 million people who visited France last year and thought the Louvre was more than a little crowded, you weren’t wrong. In 2018, the perennially popular destination was the most visited country in the world, according to the recently released United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) 2019 Tourism Highlights Report. With Spain coming in second with 83 million arrivals, and the United States in third with 80 million, the list of countries that welcomed the most international guests in 2018 hardly contains any surprises.
To discover the places that only in-the-know travelers are visiting, AFAR dug into the data to find the countries that saw the largest percentage change in international arrival growth between 2017 and 2018. Some spots like Vietnam, Nepal, and Egypt topped the list of fastest-growing destinations once again. Others like Comoros, a small island nation in eastern Africa, truly took us by surprise. But the most shocking addition to this year’s list is the country that took the number one spot.
Read on to see the full list of up-and-coming destinations.
10. Vietnam: 19.9 percent
After seeing a nearly 30 percent increase in tourism between 2016 and 2017 thanks in part to visa exemptions for certain countries, Vietnam’s skyrocketing growth slowed down slightly last year. But considering only 5 million traveled to Vietnam in 2010 and nearly 15.5 million came in 2018, it’s safe to say that this Southeast Asian destination could rival Spain and France one day.
U.S. travelers still need to apply for a visa to Vietnam, but a tour operator can help navigate that process. G Adventures offers several different ways to explore Vietnam, including age-appropriate trips for families, budget tours for twenty-somethings, and active itineraries for cycling enthusiasts.
9. Palestine: 20.5 percent
In general, tourist arrivals in the Middle East were up nearly 5 percent in 2018 as many countries in the region show signs of stabilizing after periods of unrest earlier in the decade. With 606,000 visitors last year, Palestine shows indications of continued growth. To see the biblical landscapes in Palestine for yourself, Intrepid Travel is bringing back its Holy Land Highlights tour in 2020 for the second year in a row. Wild Frontiers also offers a nine-day walking tour in April and October 2020 that passes through Jericho, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem.
8. Turkey: 21.7 percent
With 45,768,000 arrivals, Turkey was actually the sixth-most visited country in the entire world in 2018, coming in right after Italy and ranking ahead of Mexico and Germany. Given a 21.7 percent increase, it’s clear that the country is on the rebound after a string of terror attacks in Istanbul and Ankara in 2015 and 2016 kept travelers away. There were plenty of reasons to visit in 2018, including a brand-new airport in Istanbul and luxury hotel openings in Bodrum on the Mediterranean coast from the likes of Six Senses and Edition.
Note: After Turkey’s recent attacks on the Syrian border in 2019 and the resulting U.S. economic sanctions on Turkey, it’s unclear if tourism numbers will be affected this year. Currently the U.S. State Department maintains its Level 4 “Do Not Travel” warning for eastern Turkey near the Syrian and Iraqi borders but a Level 2 “Exercise Increased Caution” that most other European nations are under for the western areas that tourists frequent.
7. Nepal: 24.8 percent
For the second year in a row, Nepal saw nearly 25 percent more travelers arrive than the year before with 1,173,000 arrivals in 2018. In some ways, this rapid growth has helped the country rebuild after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal in 2015. But after 11 people died on Mount Everest during a particularly crowded 2019 season, the number of permits Nepal issues to climb the mountain has been called into question.
To explore Nepal responsibly, travel with G Adventures on its classic Nepal Adventure trip, which includes an overnight homestay with the indigenous Tharu community in Royal Chitwan National Park and hiking treks in the Annapurna Range.
6. Comoros: 28.2 percent
Never heard of Comoros until now? Same here. If you need help finding it on a map, the small east African island nation is due north of Madagascar and off the coast of Mozambique. Even though only 36,000 people visited Comoros in 2018, that translated into a 28.2 percent increase in arrivals from 2017, earning it a place on this list. Comoros doesn’t have luxury accommodations like in the Seychelles, but it has plenty of white sand beaches, turquoise waters, and volcanic landscapes to explore.
5. Uganda: 31.9 percent
Uganda had 1,850,000 arrivals in 2018, up nearly 32 percent from 2017 thanks to increased interest in gorilla-tracking safaris and celebrity visits from the likes of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West.
A note on Ebola: In 2019, the CDC confirmed that Uganda “detected and responded to multiple cases” of Ebola virus that had crossed the border from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The U.S. Embassy in Uganda issued a health alert after the first incident in June saying that the government of Uganda has the affected area under heightened surveillance with the World Health Organization. All airports and border posts are screening travelers arriving from affected areas in DRC.
However, luxury safari operators including Roar Africa and Journeys by Design both told AFAR that they have not canceled any trips to Uganda in 2019 because of Ebola. Considering the private nature of its itineraries, Journeys by Design confirmed that there is very low risk of travelers being in contact with the disease.
4. Egypt: 36.8 percent
If you want to visit Egypt before the masses return, go now. In 2018, it welcomed 11,346,000 visitors, up from 8.3 million in 2017. With the eagerly anticipated opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum in 2020, Egypt should soon see tourism numbers surpass its 2010 record when around 14 million visitors came the year before anti-government protests toppled the presidency of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Intrepid Travel’s eight-day Egypt Adventure covers Cairo, the Pyramids, and the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. There are also plenty of new ways to cruise the Nile. In September 2020, the 82-passenger Viking Osiris will join the smaller 52-passenger Viking Ra, which debuted in 2018, in order to meet demand.
3. Iran: 49.9 percent
Thanks to a simpler visa process and a major slide in the value of the Iranian rial, travel to Iran has grown easier and more affordable for international visitors. The Middle Eastern nation welcomed 7,295,000 tourists in 2018—an increase of nearly 50 percent from the prior year.
Although the U.S. State Department advises U.S. citizens not to travel to Iran, it’s still possible to get an entry visa. GeoEx has been taking travelers to Iran since 1993—making it the longest-operating U.S. tour company in Iran. Its 20-day Treasures of Persia tour has departures in April and September 2020 and visits cities like Shiraz and Esfahan, as well as more than 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the St. Stepanos monastery near the border of Azerbaijan.
2. Ecuador: 51 percent
In 2018, Ecuador welcomed 2,429,000 visitors. While a majority stayed on the mainland, visiting the capital city of Quito or exploring the cloud forests of the Andes, approximately 275,000 travelers visited the country’s famed Galápagos Islands in 2018—a 14 percent increase from 2017. To help curb the rapid growth to the archipelago’s fragile ecosystem, Ecuador’s government recently proposed doubling the $100 national park entrance fee to $200 for foreign visitors.
New airline routes are making it easier than ever to get to Ecuador. JetBlue’s direct Fort Lauderdale–Quito route launched back in 2016. But after adding a Fort Lauderale–Guayaquil direct route in early 2019, JetBlue will also introduce a New York (JFK)–Guayaquil flight in December, making it the airline’s longest route in its network.
1. Tajikistan: 190.1 percent
After welcoming only 431,000 visitors in 2017, Tajikistan saw massive growth last year with 1,250,000 arrivals after the government declared 2018 the “Year of Tourism” and eased up on visa restrictions. Considering the growing popularity of other Central Asian countries (Georgia ranked fifth on this list last year and AFAR covered Uzbekistan in our November/December 2019 issue), it’s no surprise more travelers are curious to discover this mountainous nation.
If you want to go, Wild Frontiers is launching a new Tajikistan itinerary in July 2020. The 16-day trip will take guests along the Pamir Highway through the mountain range bearing the same name, with stops to get to know locals at village homestays along the way.
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