You might think that a big country like the United States is the most visited in the world, but you’d be wrong: France takes that honor.
About 90 million international visitors went there in 2019 and tourism accounts for 8% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the French foreign ministry. As in other countries, tourist numbers have plunged during the coronavirus pandemic and visitor revenues to France have been halved in the first seven months of 2020.
Like the United States, France has mountains, vineyards, famous sites and spectacular coastlines in abundance, with a wine heritage thousands of years old. (Spain ranks second in the number of tourists, with 83.5 million in 2019, followed by the United States, with 79.3 million, according to the World Tourism Organization).
On top of that, France is easily accessible from neighboring European countries, is relatively small, and has a certain “je ne sais quoi” – something you can’t quite put your finger on – those who know the countries told CNBC.
Something for everyone
In the Urville region, an area where vines were first planted around 2,000 years ago in Roman times, is a vineyard and business that spans eight generations.
Charline Drappier, who works alongside her grandfather, parents and two brothers at the helm of the family-owned Champagne Drappier label, said the vineyard was particularly popular with visitors from the United States, Italy , Belgium, United Kingdom and Germany. She adds that people are drawn to France for its variety.
Charline Drappier and her family members in their vineyard in Champagne, France.
Courtesy: Philippe Martineau | Drappier Champagne
“You can travel to a very small part of the world and the diversity … will be cultural or just natural,” she told CNBC by phone. “Everyone finds something they want to discover about France…in the history, obviously in the Alps, the beach, the complete wilderness, and also a lot of culture [interests].”
France is one of the favorite destinations for clients of Virtuoso, a network of travel agents and experts, according to its Vice President Misty Belles, based in Washington DC “Accessibility certainly matters, but there are many European countries with good airlift and rail service,” she told CNBC via email.
The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.
Alexander Spatari | time | Getty Images
“People are drawn to France for the exquisite cuisine, the culture, the sheer beauty of the country and ultimately the way they feel there. There is a certain romance in France,” she said. added. Like Drappier, Belles says that France’s variety is part of its appeal, and that the country is easier to navigate than others: “Given the size of the country, it’s easy to navigate…without traveling great distances like you do in the United States”
Paris is a personal highlight for Belles, who has been to France more than 20 times. “I’m getting to a point where I’ve been away too long where my soul misses Paris,” she said.
Pau, in the south-west of France.
P. Eoche | Photodisc | Getty Images
Some of Drappier’s favorite spots are in the southwest of France. She chose the town of Pau, with its views of the Pyrenees, describing it as “very authentic”, and listed Les Papilles Insolites wine bar as a top pick.
During the first year of the pandemic, Drappier, her husband and her young daughter went on a road trip in the Massif Central, a mountainous region in the south that she knew little about. The remote Aubrac region was a highlight for her. She recommended the restaurant Serge Vieira, which has two Michelin stars, for its countryside views. She also suggested Le Suquet, which made headlines in 2018 when chef Sebastian Bras gave up his three Michelin stars, saying he no longer wanted to cook under such pressure.
Drappier also loves the Philippe Starck-designed Hotel La Coorniche, “a gem of a place” on the site of a 1930s hunting lodge about an hour’s drive south of Bordeaux. She also recommends Alice Cap Ferret, a nearby bookstore that doubles as a wine shop.
Practical and emotional appeal
Cap Ferret, a residential area stretching about three kilometers along a finger-shaped peninsula, is also beloved of Michael Baynes, a British estate agent who moved to France 15 years ago. He describes it as “very fancy” and popular with French people on vacation.
Low tide at the Bassin d’Arcachon, Cap Ferret, France.
Danielle Schneider | Photononstop | Getty Images
Baynes said France is popular for both practical and emotional reasons. “France is very well organized to receive guests. It has excellent roads… transport, whether by train, road or air, everything is relatively easy, so it is well placed to receive guests from around the world whole,” he told CNBC over the phone.
Almost all businesses in France are small or medium-sized, with 99.9% having less than 250 employees, according to the OECD. Baynes said many of the small hotel businesses are family-owned and “high quality”. He added: “If you go online and you’re [looking for] high quality rooms in the Bordeaux region, you will get a long list of very good quality options. And they’re…family businesses that often make great food as well.”
The medieval castle of Beynac overlooking the Dordogne river in France.
Manfred Gottschalk | Stone | Getty Images
“Emotionally…it’s just a beautiful place. I lived in Southern California, which some people consider a paradise, in a place called Orange County…and I moved [to France] almost 15 years ago and I haven’t looked back,” Baynes said. He is based in the Dordogne and his real estate company Maxwell-Baynes sells luxury homes in the southwest of France to French and American clients as well as those from other European countries and Israel.
At the top of Baynes’ list of places to visit is La Rochelle, a small seaside town in western France, which he likes a lot for its shops, restaurants and beaches, as well as being less expensive than other places. The islands of Ile de Rey and Ile d’Oleron, linked to La Rochelle by a bridge, are great for cycling and seafood and are “undiscovered” to many, Baynes said.
As for the better known places, he likes Cannes, on the Côte d’Azur. “I love how stylish it is…it’s a place where you can put a particular jacket that you only keep for certain occasions, or if it’s winter you can put your Moncler [coat],” he stated.