Fill your mind and soul: 2023’s 10 most visited countries in the world

most visited countries in the world
People stroll across the Esplanade des Droits de l'Homme at Trocadero Square facing the Eiffel Tower in Paris on December 6, 2023. Source: AFP

The most visited countries in the world are where millions of travellers flock each year to experience rich cultures, iconic landmarks and diverse landscapes.

Countries like France, Spain and the US consistently top the charts for international visitors. In 2019, France alone welcomed nearly 90 million tourists, drawn to its romance, world-renowned cuisine and iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower.

Their popularity can be attributed to a combination of factors, including well-established tourism infrastructure, extensive marketing efforts and a wealth of attractions.

Famous landmarks, cultural festivals and historical sites attract travellers worldwide. These countries often benefit from great transportation networks, making them easily accessible.

As a traveller, exploring the most visited countries in the world provides an opportunity to immerse yourself in the diverse tapestry of global cultures, discover iconic landmarks and indulge in different cuisines.

That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic shut our borders.

most visited countries in the world

The COVID-19 crisis has hit the tourism economy hard, with unprecedented effects on jobs and businesses. Source: AFP

How COVID-19 affected travelling

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, bustling airports and crowded tourist spots were a common sight, but the virus brought a sudden halt to global travel. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), global passenger traffic plummeted by 65.9% in 2020 compared to the previous year.

Lockdowns, travel restrictions and fear of infection created an unprecedented decline in tourism and business travel alike.

International students, once free to explore educational opportunities worldwide, faced uncertainty and disrupted plans.

The number of international students globally dropped by 8% in 2020, affecting the cultural exchange that these students bring to universities and countries.

Fast forward to the present, and the travel sector is undergoing a remarkable transformation.

With widespread vaccination campaigns and improved safety measures, the travel industry is experiencing a revival.

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) reported a significant rebound in global travel, predicting a 48.5% increase in international tourist arrivals in 2021.

Countries are easing entry requirements, and the aviation industry is witnessing a gradual return to pre-pandemic levels.

For international students, this means a renewed opportunity to pursue education abroad.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) reported a steady rise in the enrollment of international students.

As the world reopens its borders, the dreams of studying in foreign universities are once again becoming a reality for students worldwide.

And bringing back to life the biggest question for international students: which are the best countries to study abroad?

The list of most visited countries in the world — and the opposite — may hold some answers.

Least visited countries in the world

Venturing off on the road not taken can lead you to some of the world’s least visited countries, often hidden gems waiting to be explored.

According to  UNWTO, countries like Tuvalu, Nauru and Kiribati rank among the least visited countries in the world.

These remote nations often face challenges in terms of accessibility, with limited transportation options and fewer international flights.

Tuvalu, for instance, received only around 2,000 visitors in 2017, and Nauru saw only 200 tourists the same year.

The most visited countries in the world boast the opposite features: many flights, easy transport links and many other great factors that draw millions of tourists every year — the same factors that can enhance your study abroad adventure.

People walk in village Royal place displays with Christmas decorations, in Paris, on December 15, 2023. Source: AFP

10 most visited countries in the world

1. France

France is the most visited country in the world, boasting over 72.4 million visitors. While Paris, its capital, is securing the second spot among the world’s most frequented cities. 

The allure of France is undeniable. Its history is shown through its castles and cathedrals, which tell tales of royalty that span centuries.

Idyllic villages and romantic cities are inviting for those who want to indulge in markets, the quintessentially French café terraces and the timeless ritual of enjoying a coffee and croissant.

Beyond its architecture, France is known for its outdoors. This includes Corsica’s forests and the French Riviera’s sun-soaked shores.

The country’s reputation as a global favourite isn’t solely because of its scenic beauty but also its delectable cuisine. 

French food is celebrated worldwide for its unique and delicate flavours and presentation. From Michelin-starred restaurants to charming cafes, France provides a gastronomic journey defined by the world’s best wines, pastries and classic fine dining dishes.

Many international students are also drawn to France due to the many educational opportunities.

With esteemed institutions, a vibrant cultural scene and friendly visas, studying in France is a top choice for many.

The country’s educational system is renowned for its quality, allowing students to immerse themselves in the French language and culture. 

People walk past a newly installed mural of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Manhattan’s East Village on November 19, 2020 in New York City. Source: AFP

2. US

The US remains one of the most visited countries in the world, enticing visitors with its diverse blend of metropolises and small-town charms.

Despite a projected decline in visitor numbers from 50.9 million in 2022 to 41.8 million in 2023, according to WTM data, the allure of the American Dream is still strong.

From the iconic skyline of New York City to the glitz of Las Vegas, the cultural melting pots of Los Angeles and Chicago, and the historical charm of Boston, American cities are vibrant, ever-evolving spaces that offer many cultures and cuisines.

Its landscapes also add to its popularity, with attractions like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park and the lush rainforests.

Apart from being a sought-after travel destination, the US is also a hub for international students seeking quality education. From Harvard to Berkeley, renowned universities and colleges offer a wide array of academic and research opportunities, with no shortage of immersions in American life. 

most visited countries in the world

Spain is one of the most visited countries in the world, with millions of visitors each year coming to see the country’s beautiful beaches, historical landmarks, and cultural attractions. Source: AFP

3. Spain 

Spain is the embodiment of passion and a good life. In 2022, Spain hosted over 71.6 million international visitors, and this year, it remains one of the most visited countries in the world, with over 70 million visitors. 

The country boasts a trove of captivating attractions. Antoni Gaudi’s masterpieces like the Sagrada Familia and Park Guell in Barcelona, the awe-inspiring Alhambra, the serene El Retiro in Madrid and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao are just a sampling of the country’s cultural riches. 

Spain has become a hotspot for international students seeking educational opportunities. With a range of universities offering diverse programmes in English and Spanish, students from around the world are drawn to the quality of education and the cultural experience Spain provides.

According to UNESCO, Spain is one of the top destinations for international students, with many enrolled in higher education institutions. The opportunity to immerse oneself in Spanish, explore centuries-old libraries and museums and engage in a vibrant student life contributes to the country’s appeal.

People are seen on a ferry across the Huangpu River in Shanghai on December 10, 2023. Source: AFP

4. China 

China, standing as one of the most visited countries in the world, has an appeal beyond politics.

Historically, China boasts a legacy predating many nations, with universities established before schools even existed in England.

The iconic attractions contribute to China’s popularity, including the majestic Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an and the modern skyline of Shanghai. 

Beyond the bustling cities, inner China has wonders such as Chengdu, Sichuan Province, Guilin and the island oasis of Hainan.

While currently many of its tourists come from other Asian nations, China’s tourism landscape is expected to change, and efforts to streamline the tourist visa process would undoubtedly contribute to this transformation.

China has become popular for international students with a growing number of top-ranking universities.

According to the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, over 500,000 international students have recently enrolled in Chinese universities. 

most visited countries in the world

Whether you prefer a classic margherita or pepperoni, Italy is the place to be for all pizza lovers. Source: AFP

5. Italy 

Next on the list of most visited countries in the world is Italy. It is the epitome of culinary delights, rich history and artistic treasures. This comes as no surprise with cities like Rome, Florence, Venice, the Amalfi Coast and the picturesque island of Sicily.

The charms of Italy lies not only in its delicious cuisine of pizza, pasta, and wine but also in its cultural significance and beauty. 

Despite a slight dip in numbers to 25.9 million visitors this year, Italy remains a top destination in Europe and globally.

Whether exploring the ruins of Pompeii, strolling through Tuscany’s vineyards, or marvelling at St. Peter’s Basilica, Italy offers an enriching experience.

Italy hosts some of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities.

Here, the chance to study art, history, fashion, and architecture in the very landscapes that inspired the masters of these disciplines is a dream come true for many.  

most visited countries in the world

Thanks to its compelling cuisine and beautiful architecture, Turkey was one of the most visited countries in the world. Source: AFP

6. Turkey 

Turkey is one of the most visited countries globally, luring travellers with its unique charm and diverse attractions. It has fairytale-like hot air balloons of Cappadocia, the cascading waterfalls of Pamukkale and the ancient marvels of Ephesus.

Endless beach resorts, including the stunning Mediterranean coastline, as well as culinary delights such as spiced kebabs, oil-cooked vegetables, and baklava increase Turkey’s appeal. 

Every year, more than 250,000 international students join its 207 universities. They come through both the Erasmus+ scheme and international partnerships with universities.

The lifting of hot air balloons during the third day of the 21st International Hot Air Balloon Festival in Leon, Guanajuato state, Mexico, on November 19, 2023. Source: AFP

7. Mexico 

Mexico, welcoming nearly 40 million visitors this year, is one of the most visited countries in the world.

Of those who travel here, they can see that the Mexican spirit is unlike any other. 

Mexico’s diverse landscapes, including eye-catching jungles, volcanoes, deserts, and coastlines, offer adventures for both hikers and divers, from scaling Oaxaca’s mountainous ridges to diving deep into the Caribbean.

Mexico’s street tacos, enchiladas and guacamole create a tantalising journey for your taste buds.

The country’s festivals, from Dia de los Muertos to vibrant local fiestas, add a festive spirit to your exploration.

It also stands as an increasingly popular destination for international students. Over 70,000 international students have chosen Mexican universities, drawn by the academic quality, affordable tuition and the chance to immerse themselves in the Spanish language and Mexican culture. 

most visited countries in the world

People enjoy a drink at a bar along the popular tourist and nightlife strip Khao San Road in Bangkok. Source: AFP

8. Thailand 

Thailand is one of the most visited countries in the world, drawing 27.5 million visitors this year. The appeal of Thailand lies in its multifaceted charm – from having the best food in the world, pristine landscapes and endless beaches to friendly people and a cost of living that won’t break the bank. 

The vibrant atmosphere of Bangkok, the laid-back beauty of Koh Samui, the stunning landscapes of Phang Nga, and the breathtaking scenery of Krabi are all appealing in many and various ways.

Thailand’s nightlife, shopping, scrumptious street food and numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including ancient structures and dense forests, make it a perennial tourist favourite. 

Beyond drawing toursits, Thailand is becoming an increasingly popular destination for international students. The country’s universities offer a range of programmes in English, providing the opportunity to study in a tropical paradise.

The affordability of living expenses and the opportunity to experience Thai hospitality firsthand make Thailand an attractive choice for those seeking academic growth.

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People enjoy the sunset on the Admiralsbruecke in Berlin’s district of Kreuzberg. Source: AFP

9. Germany 

Germany, nestled at the heart of Europe, is one of the most visited countries in the world, boasting a rich tapestry of cultural, historical and natural wonders. The country’s allure is thanks to its 6,800 museums, including the Städel Museum, preserving 700 years of art history and many magnificent castles and palaces like Neuschwanstein Castle. 

With 16 natural landscapes, including the Black Forest Natural Park and Harz National Park, Germany attracts nature enthusiasts from around the world. Despite a dip in visitor numbers from 28.5 million to 19.8 million in 2023, Germany is still a popular destination.

Germany also stands out as a hub for education, attracting international students seeking academic excellence. The country boasts numerous universities known for their research output and high-quality education. The opportunity to pursue programmes in English, coupled with the absence of tuition fees in many public universities, adds to the appeal. 

10. United Kingdom 

Welcoming over 31.2 million visitors in 2020, with a projected increase to 37.5 million by the end of 2023, the UK is one of the most visited countries in the world. The UK’s popularity is attributed not only to its rich historical and cultural heritage but also to its exceptional Christmas markets, festivals and diverse attractions.

From Buckingham Palace to the lush green countryside, the UK has so much to offer. It is more than just London, with cities like Glasgow, Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds, Edinburgh and Manchester just as exciting as its capital.

On the higher education front, the UK’s universities need no introduction. With esteemed institutions like Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London, the UK is home to some of the world’s brightest minds tackling the grand challenges of the 21st century.

That, and the diverse range of programmes, the opportunity to learn English in an immersive environment, and the cultural vibrancy of cities like London make the UK a sought-after destination for those seeking a great study abroad adventure.