The 9 Top Cities for International Tourism

With winter weather making appearances and holiday vacations just around the corner, many Americans are turning their thoughts to sunnier locales. Here are the most popular cities for tourists looking to travel overseas.

The global tourism industry is a behemoth, generating more than $1 trillion in revenue each year, according to IBIS World. The industry employs some 56 million people and has grown by 5% over the past 5 years, despite the economic recession.

With winter weather making appearances and holiday vacations just around the corner, many Americans are turning their thoughts to sunnier locales. And while most Americans might consider Europe or the Caribbean as the ideal spots for an international vacation, the rest of the world spends most of its international tourism time in Asia.

MasterCard Worldwide Insights took a look at the top tourism spots for international tourists in its 2014 MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index. The list, which is ranked by number of overnight stays by international visitors, is dominated by Asia and Europe, which have 10 of the top 20 cities, and 8 of the top cities, respectively. New York, the only US city on the list, comes in sixth place. Lima, Peru, came in 20th.

Which cities attract the most international tourists? Below is a list of the top 9 foreign cities on the list. We’ve left New York out of it, so as to keep the list focused on American travelers. That said, many of the cities on the list see relatively few American tourists. That means they’re a perfect fit for travelers who want the amenities of a world class tourism destination as well as the bragging rights of having visited a place most of their friends have not.

The data come from the MasterCard report, unless otherwise noted.

Annual International Visitors: 8.63 million

Spending Rank: 6th ($11.51 billion)

The vast majority of Seoul’s visitors come from East Asian and Pacific countries, according to South Korea’s tourism office. Late summer and early fall tend to be the most popular times of year to travel to the city. Nationwide, tourists spend more than 1.8 billion in the country in August alone. Visitors can see the site of the 1988 Olympics as well as one of Asia’s largest amusement parks, Lotte World.

Annual International Visitors: 8.84 million

Spending Rank: 11th ($8.28 billion)

Hong Kong has recently been in the news for the political unrest taking place there. However, in normal times the city has a robust tourism industry. Its hotels had an 89% occupancy rate, though the majority of the cities visitors come from within China. When it comes to long-haul tourism, the US send the most tourists to Hong Kong, though that number fell last year by 6%.

Annual International Visitors: 10.81 million

Spending Rank: 12th ($8.08 billion)

The Malaysian city is a growing tourism destination for travelers from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia. The number of tourists coming to Kuala Lumpur from Melbourne jumped nearly 35% in 2014 versus 2013, according to MasterCard. Still, 40% of the city’s international travelers come from outside of the region.

Annual International Visitors: 11.6 million

Spending Rank: 10th ($9.38 billion)

Istanbul attracted millions of visitors from western and central Europe each year, likely due in large part to the high levels of Turkish immigrants in countries such as Germany, which sends 11% of the city’s tourists annually. All in all, 55% of Istanbul’s annual visitors come from outside the region.

Annual International Visitors: 11.95 million

Spending Rank: 8th ($10.95 billion)

Dubai is the top tourist spot in the United Arab Emirates and in the Middle East as a whole. Its annual overnight visitors are more than double that of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which comes in second on the regional list. Two-thirds of the city’s visitors come from outside the region. Its top 5 feeder cities include 3 regional cities—Riyadh, Kuwait City, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and 2 European cities—London and Paris.

Annual International Visitors: 12.47 million

Spending Rank: 4 ($14.34 billion)

Singapore has been a rising star on the international tourism scene. It’s had one of the fastest growth rates of any city over the past 5 years, and the city has the second-highest visitor expenditure per city resident rate of any city (behind Dubai). However, Singapore’s success is largely regional. The vast majority of the city’s international visitors—82%—come from the region, with Indonesia sending the most tourists of any country to Singapore.

Annual International Visitors: 15.57 million

Spending Rank: 3 ($17.02 billion)

Though the list is largely dominated by Asian cities, a couple of European cities made the list, including Paris. Most of Paris’ international tourists come from the US (18%). The UK, Italy, Germany, and Japan, round out the top 5 feeder countries. Just over half—53%—of the city’s tourists come from outside the region.

Annual International Visitors: 16.42 million

Spending Rank: 5 ($13.04 billion)

Singapore beats out Bangkok when it comes to spending by tourists, but the Thai city wins out in terms of sheer number of international visitors. In fact, the city was the top international tourist destination last year, before getting beat out this year. Only about 4% of Bangkok’s travelers come from the US, and only 42% come from outside of the region. Ironically, 3 of Bangkok’s top feeder cities are Singapore, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur—all cities competing with Bangkok for international tourists.

Annual International Visitors: 18.69 million

Spending Rank: 4 ($14.34 billion)

London is a giant of international tourism, though it largely draws tourists from its neighbors in continental Europe. Two-thirds of the city’s visitors come from within the region, particularly France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. However, the US sends the most tourists to London of any country, accounting for about 12% of the city’s international tourists.

Read the entire MasterCard report here.