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The World’s Fastest Growing Tourist Destinations Aren’t Where You Think

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© Photo by Georgios Tsichlis / Shutterstock.com The micronation of San Marino was the fastest growing destination in Europe last year.

By Lyndsey Matthews, AFAR

From looking at your Instagram feed over the last year, you might guess that Iceland(or maybe Portugal) would be at the top of a list of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world. But you’d be wrong. In fact, neither of the popular European countries even broke into the top 10 nations that saw the largest percentage of arrival growth by international tourists from 2016 to 2017, according to newly released data from the UNWTO.

Overall, tourist arrivals across the world are up 7 percent in 2017—the highest amount since last decade's economic crisis—but the countries at the top of this list tell a particularly interesting story. After years of security challenges and unrest in the region, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel all rebounded significantly last year, while San Marino—a micronation of just 33,500 inhabitants in the middle of Italy—became Europe’s fastest growing tourist destination.

See the full list below, and who knows? You might just be inspired to travel to one of these up-and-coming spots.

10. Northern Mariana Islands: 24.3%

Even though the Northern Mariana Islands are spread out through a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, the fact that they are a commonwealth of the United States (and therefore require no visa for U.S. citizens) makes them a popular destination for divers hoping to explore the remains of nearby shipwrecks from World War II battles. Its neighbors to the north—Japan and South Korea—also contributed to the 660,000 travelers who arrived in the Northern Mariana Islands in 2017 leading to a huge 24.3 percent increase from 2016.

9. Israel: 24.6%

Overall, the Middle East showed strong signs of recovery last year with tourist arrivals up 5 percent throughout the region. But after a wave of violence lead to a large decrease in visitors between 2015 and 2016, Israel had more than 3.6 million people arrive in 2017—a 24.6 percent increase from the previous year.

This trend appears to be continuing in 2018, too. Adventure travel oufitter Intrepid Travel has seen a 36 percent increase in travelers from around the world to Israel in 2018 compared to 2017. To serve this demand, it’s introduced a new Holy Land Highlights tour for 2019 in addition to its popular Israel and Palestine Real Food Adventure.

8. Nepal: 24.9%

After a magnitude 7.8 earthquake killed thousands of people in 2015 in Nepal, a rapid increase in tourism has helped the country rebuild. While the number of international tourists in 2017 was at a high of 940,000, the rate appears to be leveling off for anyone worried about the threat of overtourism. Compared to the impressive 39.7 percent growth the UNWTO recorded in 2016, the numbers last year reflect just a 24.9 percent increase.

If you’d like to explore it for yourself, consider booking GeoEx’s Invitation to Nepal trip, which features everything from exploring the capital in Kathmandu to a safari in Chitwan National Park and hiking in Pokhara.

7. Niue: 25.4%

The rocky limestone coast of this coral atoll in the South Pacific lacks the beaches many travelers want, but divers seeking clear waters and coral reefs are flocking to the island. With strong ties to the government of New Zealand, many locals have left the island for better opportunities there, leaving just over 1,600 inhabitants living on Niue year round. But with extra Air New Zealand flights added every winter season, that means that the number of tourists visiting the island hit 10,000 in 2017—a growth of 25.4 percent since 2016.

6. Palestine: 25.7%

Similarly to Israel, Palestine rebounded by welcoming 503,000 visitors last year—a huge 25.7 percent increase—from 2016. Palestine is a speciality of adventure travel company Wild Frontiers, which hosts an eight-day walking tour in April and October 2019 with stops in Bethlehem, Jericho, and Jerusalem, plus a chance to stay with local families in a Bedouin desert camp.

5. Georgia: 27.9%

Although European countries bordering the Mediterranean saw the largest amount of growth overall last year as a region, travel to Eastern Europe is also way up. In fact, Georgia (the country, not the state) saw a 27.9 percent increase in tourism with 3,479,000 international arrivals in 2017 as its natural wine scene gains more attention around the world.

The numbers are only going up from here. Already in 2018, Intrepid Travel has seen an 186 percent increase globally in travelers to Georgia compared to 2017. There are still no direct flights from the United States to Tbilisi, but Intrepid Travel says its Highlights of Azerbaijan and Georgia trip has seen an increase in bookings by 200 percent from North America this year alone.

4. Vietnam: 29.1%

Tourism was up overall across Southeast Asia in 2017, thanks to a growing number of incoming international tourists from countries like China, Japan, and South Korea in Northeast Asia. But Vietnam saw the fastest growth for the entire region due to a series of visa exemptions and a flurry of new flights. Add in several exciting hotel openings, and it’s not hard to see why 12,922,000 people traveled to Vietnam last year—a 29.1 percent increase from 2016.

U.S. travelers still need a visa to enter Vietnam, but it is also growing in popularity with them, too. Butterfield & Robinson’s Vietnam walking tour is a great way to explore the country’s capital city of Hanoi, tropical forests on Ninh Binh, and rice paddies in Sapa all on foot.

3. San Marino: 31.1%

At about one third of the size of Washington, D.C., San Marino is the third smallest nation in Europe after the Holy See and Monaco. But that hasn’t stopped travelers from visiting the UNESCO World Heritage site located in the middle of Italy that is known for its medieval walled city center. With only 78,000 international arrivals in 2017, it was still the least visited country in Europe last year. But considering that the number is up 31 percent from 2016—and that there are only 33,500 locals—those numbers are massive and put it at number three on this list.

2. Togo: 46.7%

While the West African nation of Togo welcomes significantly fewer visitors each year compared to popular safari destinations like South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, the number of international tourist arrivals between 2016 and 2017 grew 46.7 percent from 338,000 to 496,000, making it the second fastest growing country on this list.

After a new airportopened in the capital of Lomé in 2016, airlines like TAP Portugal began adding routes into the country. To see it for yourself, book GeoEx’s Mystical West Africa trip to explore the region’s cultural traditions—including a voodoo ceremony—in Togo and its neighbors Benin and Ghana.

1. Egypt: 55.1%

Last year, 8,157,000 international tourists arrived in Egypt—a massive 55.1 percent increase from 2016. After anti-government protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 toppled the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, the unrest lead to a huge drop in numbers. But tourism is finally rebounding. The numbers haven’t yet returned to pre-2011 levels (14,051,000 people came in 2010), but it probably won’t be long until they do. Intrepid Travel says it has already seen an impressive 177 percent growth in the number of North Americans traveling to Egypt in 2018 compared to 2017.

AFAR participates in affiliate marketing programs, which means we may earn a commission if you purchase an item featured in this story. All products and services listed here are independently selected by AFAR journalists.

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