For more than 20 years, France has consistently been the most visited country on Earth. And while few would deny its allures -- the beauty of Paris, the charms of Provence, the country's well-respected wines and legendary cuisine -- it is perhaps less evident why it has stayed so far out ahead of the pack for so long in a world that is now arguably full of equally wonderful travel destinations.
"In the [1920s] and '40s, we were lucky to have people who had a strong interest in the country," recalled Anne-Laure Tuncer, director of Atout France USA, the country's tourism development agency.
Tuncer said the fact that foreign writers and celebrities often visited France back then, returning with stories of their travels, helped plant the seed for the country's future tourism prospects long before destination marketing organizations such as Atout France were created to generate demand.
Indeed, France's ability to cultivate and attract artists, writers and cultural influencers from around the world clearly helped it achieve prominence in the hearts and minds of potential travelers the world over. And it happened without the country even really trying. (For more images from France, click here or on any of the photos.)
"It wasn't a master plan at the beginning," Tuncer acknowledged. "Culturally, there was just a strong influence, like in literature and the arts."
It wouldn't be until the 1950s that France really started to think about tourism and address its potential directly, she said.
But since then, so has every other country. Increasingly accessible air travel has given birth to a highly profitable global travel industry, revenues from which have grown to significantly contribute to destination countries' GDP. Competition for those coveted tourist dollars is fierce, and destinations have created and improved sophisticated marketing machines to capture greater market share.
So much of what France touts -- gastronomy, history and culture, to name just a few of its traditional high points -- can now be found in plenty of other countries around the globe, and those places are letting the world know about it. Yet France remains on top in terms of visitor numbers -- and by a lot, begging the question: Is what France has still that much more enticing than what other countries can offer travelers?
Howard Lewis of Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Protravel International, has been selling France for more than 40 years and sees no end in sight to its popularity.
"The city of Paris has always been the romantic destination in people's minds for hundreds of years," Lewis said. "Paris and the south of France will always have a draw on the dreams of travelers worldwide. It has had that pull for hundreds of years, and I don't see that abating."
In 2012 (the most recent year for which numbers are available), France welcomed 83 million international travelers, followed by the U.S., with 67 million; China and Spain, with 57.7 million each; Italy, with 46.4 million; and Turkey, with 35.7 million.
Even in 2008 through 2010, when many countries saw their tourism numbers drop, France suffered a decrease in tourists, but it still remained out in front.
According to Tuncer, at the current average global tourism growth rate of 5% year over year, France could be on track to welcome more than 100 million tourists annually by 2020.
France's early success as a tourism destination makes sense. But that it has managed to maintain this much staying power, when such a wealth of additional and competitive travel options have come on the scene, has been impressive.
The challenge of staying on top
The French tourism industry is keenly aware of the challenges that lie ahead if their country is going to maintain its spot at the apex of the global travel market.
Tourism constitutes 7.2% of France's GDP, and that is revenue the country doesn't want to lose.
Significantly, while it is the most-visited country in the world, France doesn't make the most money from tourism. The U.S. pulled in $140 billion in international tourism receipts in 2013, followed by Spain, with $60 billion. France's take totaled $56 billion.
Thus, the first challenge is to get travelers to stay longer and see, do and spend more while they're in the country.
Lewis said that travelers almost always want to visit "Paris and the south of France, No. 1. But I try to always, with some success, have them stretch their wings and hit other fantastic places all throughout France."
Still, he noted, it isn't always easy to get Americans to go beyond Paris and the country's other traditional highlights. "Sometimes it's a tough sell," Lewis said. "But if they are open and trust me and themselves, then I can create some wonderful experiences."
France is also battling some perception issues -- most acutely, the long-held stereotype that the French are rude. So several years ago, the country's tourism ministry tackled the problem head-on by introducing a new approach to tourism, with an emphasis on acting more welcoming.
Along those lines, the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau last summer printed 30,000 pamphlets and distributed them to Parisians who work in restaurants, cafes, hotels and museums as well as to taxi drivers.
The pamphlets offered up some useful vocabulary terms such as "good morning" and "thank you" in several languages, along with some research and data about foreign travelers.
The campaign, titled "Do you speak touriste?" also addressed the fact that tourists from different destinations often seek different attractions and experiences.
"Of course, not all American people behave the same way," Francois Navarro, head of the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau, told Travel Weekly at the time the campaign launched. But he said data showed that, on average, Americans stay 6.7 days in Paris, spending about $190 per day.
"All this kind of information we wanted to give to our professionals," he said. "There is a huge competition between cities in the world. We know the [perceived] difference between two cities ... will be about how you welcome your visitors."
Another challenge is that France is perceived as being expensive.
"Paris hotels are getting to be quite expensive," said Yolande Kamins, owner of Enchanted France. "Of course, the exchange rate of the dollar vs. euros is not often favorable."
Being thought of as costly, combined with an image of a country steeped in history, has another potential drawback. It can make France a more difficult sell for younger, more budget-oriented travelers.
"The perception is that we're more expensive than Italy, and that's not true," Tuncer said. "The offering is so big, and it's good for any budget. We are trying to tell people there's an offer for everyone."
She added that another challenge is the perception that France is predictable. For that reason, Atout France wants to get the word out about events like Nuit Blanche (White Night) in Paris, a free dusk-to-dawn arts and culture event that takes place every October. The organization also wants to promote music festivals and contemporary art exhibits that could appeal to the next generation of travelers.
Normandy, river cruises and beyond
During the global recession and in its immediate aftermath, France saw its tourism numbers slump. But just as it came back after 9/11, France again this year is seeing a resurgence of interest in visiting the country.
That has been in no small part aided by the 70th anniversary last month of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Tour operators and travel sellers marketed the occasion aggressively and helped bring history buffs to the northern region of France to recall the events of World War II and pay tribute to the fallen.
In addition, France is the hot spot du jour in the booming river cruise market. Cruise companies are launching a slew of ships and introducing new routes throughout the country to seize upon growing demand.
This year, Viking Cruises and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection each introduced new itineraries in Bordeaux, bringing to three the number of distinct river cruising regions on offer throughout France. Those include the Seine River from Paris to Normandy, the Rhone and Saone rivers in Burgundy and Provence, and the Garonne and Gironde rivers in the Bordeaux region.
In 2014, Viking christened three vessels in the south of France; Uniworld launched a new vessel there, as well; Tauck repositioned its 118-passenger Swiss Sapphire to the Seine; and Scenic Cruises is launching its 128-passenger Scenic Gem on the Seine later this year.
Avalon Waterways is increasing its France capacity for 2015 by 95%; direct-to-consumer operator Grand Circle Cruise Line will put the River Cloud II in Bordeaux in March; Emerald Waterways is introducing a new ship in the south of France; and French river cruise company CroisiEurope is introducing the 96-passenger paddlewheeler, Loire Princess, on the Loire River next April.
"We are very excited about the growth opportunity in France," Richard Marnell, Viking's senior vice president of marketing, said earlier this year. "Because of strong demand already this season, we have decided to increase capacity on those two itineraries [Bordeaux and South of France] in 2015. We will add a second ship, Viking Rinda, in Bordeaux and a fourth ship on Portraits of Southern France: Viking Delling, which will be new for 2015.
"We also continue to see strong demand for our other itineraries in France and are nearly sold out for the entire summer season," Marnell added.
While Paris remains, and will probably always remain, the main draw for those visiting France, the country is working overtime to diversify its tourism product and introduce travelers to a much larger range of destinations.
For example, wine touring is luring oenophiles to France's legendary wine-making regions. Some 24 million people visit the country's wine regions each year, according to the French government.
Pascale Bernasse, president of French Wine Explorers, said, "We specialize in wine touring, so Bordeaux is a popular destination, and one of the most lovely cities outside of Paris. We also provide touring in other wine regions, such as Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Provence, Champagne, Lyon and even the French Riviera."
Bernasse and other France travel sellers noted that Languedoc in the south of France is an up-and-coming region to watch.
"There is so much to see and do in the region, prices are very reasonable, and crowds are less than in Provence," Bernasse said.
The expansion of product into lesser-known regions of France, such as Languedoc, will also help France stay fresh and relevant in the minds of travelers, especially a new generation of travelers that seems determined to get off the beaten path.
Forever No. 1?
To reach its goal of welcoming 100 million international travelers by 2020, France will have to maintain its infrastructure, continue to build hotel capacity and develop additional niche and smaller destination markets.
Roadblocks like the recent spate of air traffic controller strikes won't help in that goal. Nor will a tourist tax that was recently proposed by Parliament that would increase hotel taxes to as much as $11 per night, up from $2 currently.
But Atout France is analyzing market conditions in order to better place tourism investment that will see returns, while constantly improving the country's marketing message.
Despite all those efforts, when asked if it would be possible for another country to nab the top spot from France, Tuncer cautioned, "People are focusing on tourism so much right now, it might happen, of course. Right now, the U.S. is giving us a good run for our money. We are not ruling that out. Governments realize how important [tourism] is for the economy."
What was once a given, a sort of unintentional gift handed down by talented artists, architects and writers of centuries past, will be something France will have to work harder and harder to maintain going forward.
Being at the top has its advantages and disadvantages, said Michael Gehrisch, president and CEO of the Destination Marketing Association International. While emerging destinations have fresh appeal, he said, mature destinations like France have to constantly reinvent themselves to stay ahead of the game.
"Each destination is unique with regard to where they are in the destination life-cycle," Gehrisch said. "Some destinations are just being developed, and a focus on product development and awareness building are the keys."
For a mature destination like France, he added, "The question is: How do you keep your brand fresh and attract new visitors while at the same time encouraging repeat visitation? The biggest problem is perceived predictability."
To combat that notion, France needs to sharpen its focus on niche experiences in lesser-known regions of the country, Gehrisch said.
Still, no matter how hard it tries, it could be just a matter of time before France is unseated. The United Nations World Tourism Organization predicts stronger tourist-arrival growth in emerging international destination in Asia and Africa than in Europe and the Americas.
But if that happens, count on France not going down without a fight.
"France has become synonymous with romance, world-class cuisine and history and culture with travelers around the world," Gehrisch said. "But to say this happens by chance would be an insult to the work of organizations like the France Tourism Development Agency. The government has made tourism investment a priority, and the country has one of the world's most robust transportation infrastructures because of this."
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.