Bangkok overtakes London as the world’s top tourist destination

 Asia-Pacific shows fastest growth, fuelled by intra-regional tourism

Image: Flying the Thai flag at WatSakret, Temple of the Golden Mount in Bangkok© Johan Fantenberg. Licensed under Creative Commons via flickr.

Image: Flying the Thai flag at WatSakret, Temple of the Golden Mount in Bangkok© Johan Fantenberg. Licensed under Creative Commons via flickr.


29th September 2016

Bangkok has overtaken London to become the world’s most visited city (by number of overnight visitors), according to a recent report by Mastercard. Despite a short-lived downturn following last year’s bomb blasts, Thailand’s tourist industry has continued to grow and the country’s capital city is expected to host 21.4 million international overnight visitors in 2016. This reflects a pattern of high tourist growth within the Asia-Pacific region, which, the report found, has 5 of the world’s top 10 cities visited by tourists, and 7 of the top 10 fastest growing tourist destinations. More historically popular cities, including London, Paris and New York, are still enjoying the fruits from the global trend of increased tourism but growth in these Western destinations is slower, meaning that they may be overtaken by yet more cities in the East.¹

The rise in travel is driven by the rapid growth of the middle class in the Asia-Pacific region which according to some estimates now numbers over a billion people, outnumbering for the first time the middle class of Europe and North America combined.²  The Asia-Pacific region is now also a major spender within the global tourist industry.  This hugely populous region (61% of the world’s total) has an increasingly affluent population able and keen to spend money on travel. This is particularly true of China, which last year overtook the US to become the world’s top spender on international travel. Chinese tourists make up a large portion of tourism within the region, not least to Bangkok. This year almost a third of Thailand’s 33 million visitors will be Chinese nationals.³

This shift in the weight of global tourist numbers from West to East will play an important role in determining future trends within tourism, including the popularity of destinations, and the services and activities preferred by tourists.  For example, the Mastercard report found that outside Europe tourists tend to spendmore on shopping than dining, but that within Europe the opposite is the case. Perhaps this is not simply due to what the destination has to offer, but also due to the tastesof those travelling there: 90% of tourists within Europe are short-haul visitors from other European countries, [4] whilst the majority of tourists within Asia-Pacific are likewise travellers from within that region.  The implication is that destinations will need to adapt to meet the preferences of visitors from new or growing ‘outbound markets’ (the industry term for the tourist’s home country).

As tourist numbers continue to rise globally the question of how best to respond tothis growth is an important one for tourist sites, hosting countries, and – given the huge environmental impacts of travel – the world as a whole. The Independent Transport Commission believes that understanding who wishes to travel, where and why will be crucial in better planning for this future. To this end, the ITC’s Why Travel? project explores the fundamental motivations for travel from a wide range of perspectives and offers important lessons for the future. For more information on the project, including expert views from across the arts, sciences and humanities, see


¹ Despite the report’s findings (which focus solely on cities) it is worth remembering that Europe and North America are still the world’s major tourist destination regions: in 2015 France had the most international tourist arrivals at over 84 million, followed by the US (77 million) and Spain (68 million).  This indicates there may be differences between regions over the concentration of tourism within cities.

²   According to the OECD by 2030 Asia-Pacific will make up 66% of the global ‘middle class’ in population and 59% of ‘global middle class consumption’, compared to 28% and 23% respectively in 2009.