The global travel and tourism industry is worth an estimated $8.8 trillion a year and much of that growing economic activity is concentrated among a narrow group of destinations.

In its Global Destination Cities Index 2019, which tracks visitors and their spending habits, Mastercard found that numbers were up by an average 6.5% year-over-year since 2009, with tourism expenditure growing up an average of 7.4%.

Some of the most-visited cities are experiencing much higher than average growth. With the 2020 Olympics being held in Japan next year, Tokyo (currently 9th) is forecast to see growth in excess of 10%.

Here are the top five destination cities as featured in the 10th annual Mastercard Global Destination Cities Index:

5. Singapore

In 2018, 14.76 million overnight visitors went to Singapore – that’s the measure Mastercard uses to differentiate between visitors and those on a short stopover.

Half of the top cities on the list are in the Asia-Pacific region, which has registered the largest increase in international travellers since 2009, growing 9.4%.

Singapore is riding a wave of growing tourist visits
Image: Pixabay

Once there, visitors to Singapore were relaxed about spending their money, pushing the city to number four in the list of where tourists spent the most.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the future of cities?

Cities represent humanity's greatest achievements - and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.

These include hosting the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, which gathers bright ideas from around the world to inspire city leaders, and running the Future of Urban Development and Services initiative. The latter focuses on how themes such as the circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to create better cities. To shed light on the housing crisis, the Forum has produced the report Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities.

4. Dubai

Less than 60 years ago, Dubai was a fishing village. Today, the emirate has a population of more than 3 million. And last year, their numbers were boosted by 15.93 million visitors.

Famed as a centre for shopping and as a destination for conferences and exhibitions, when it comes to how much money visitors spend in their chosen destination, Dubai dominates. In 2018, visitors spent a whopping $30.82 billion.

Who gets the most tourist spend?
Image: Mastercard

3. London

Big Ben. Parliament. Buckingham Palace. London is full of famous landmarks. So it’s small wonder 19.09 million people went there last year.

However, London was the only city in the top 10 to experience a fall in visitor numbers – a drop of 4% that saw it slip from last year’s second-placed spot.

The UK’s top 10 visited attractions are all in London, according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, which lists the Tate Modern art gallery (5.86 million), the British Museum (5.82 million), and the National Gallery (5.73 million) as the city’s big three draws.

2. Paris

London’s loss was Paris’ gain, as it moved up the rankings from three to two, with only marginally more visitors than the UK’s capital. It might not have a monarchy, but there is plenty of pomp and splendour to see in Paris - not to mention the Louvre, the world’s most visited museum.

Of the 10.2 million people who descend through its glass pyramid entrance each year, about 80% are believed to come just to see the Mona Lisa.

 Paris – reflecting on an increase in visitor numbers
Image: Pedro Szekely

Disneyland Paris, which opened in 1992, casts a long shadow over the rest of the city’s tourist attractions. In the 25 years between opening in 1992 and 2017, it had 320 million visits, making it Europe’s top tourist destination.

It has contributed $75 billion (€68 billion) to the French economy, and represents 6.2% of France’s tourism revenue.

1. Bangkok

Hanging on to the top spot for the fourth year running, Thailand’s capital welcomed more than 22 million visitors last year.

Image: Mastercard

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council’s 2018 data, Thailand has the largest tourism economy in Southeast Asia. The $70.1 billion that tourists spent there last year accounted for 20.8% of Thailand's export earnings, the WTTC said.

But being heavily dependant on one sector can put an economy at the mercy of global trends. A strengthening Thai currency and a slowdown in the global economy could impact Thailand’s tourism income, Mastercard said.


In the World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2019, the number of international tourist arrivals worldwide reached 1.4 billion, with emerging economies contributing larger proportions of travellers to this global trend.