You might think a large country like the United States is the most visited in the world, but you'd be wrong — France takes that honor.
About 90 million international visitors traveled there in 2019, and tourism makes up 8% of the country's gross domestic product, according to the French ministry of foreign affairs. As with other countries, tourist numbers plunged during the coronavirus pandemic and revenue from visitors to France was cut in half over the first seven months of 2020.
Like the United States, France has mountains, wineries, famous sights and dramatic coastlines in abundance, with a wine-making heritage thought to be thousands of years old. (Spain ranks second for tourist numbers, with 83.5 million in 2019, followed by the United States, with 79.3 million, according to the World Tourism Organization).
On top of that, France is easily accessible from neighboring European countries, is relatively small and has a certain "je ne sais quoi" — something that you can't quite put your finger on — those who know the country well told CNBC.
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Something for everyone
In the Urville region, an area where vines were first planted around 2,000 years ago in Roman times, sits a vineyard and business that spans eight generations.
Charline Drappier, who works alongside her grandfather, parents and two brothers running the family's Champagne Drappier label, said the vineyard is especially popular with visitors from the U.S., Italy, Belgium, the U.K. and Germany. She adds that people are drawn to France for its variety.
"You can travel in quite a small patch of the world and the diversity … will be cultural or just natural," she told CNBC by phone. "Everyone finds something that they want to discover about France … in the history, in obviously the Alps, the beach, the complete wilderness, and also lot of a cultural [interests]."
France is one of the most popular destinations for clients of Virtuoso, a network of travel agents and experts, according to its Vice President Misty Belles, who is based in Washington D.C. "Accessibility certainly factors in, but there are many European countries with good airlift and rail service," she told CNBC by email.
"People are drawn to France for the exquisite cuisine, culture, pure beauty of the country and, ultimately, the way they feel when there. There is a certain romance to France," she added. Like Drappier, Belles says France's variety is part of its appeal, and the country is more easily traveled than others: "Given the size of the country, it's easily navigated … without traveling vast distances as you do within the U.S."
Paris is a personal highlight for Belles, who has been to France more than 20 times. "I reach a point when I'm away too long where my soul misses Paris," she said.
Some of Drappier's favorite places are in southwest France. She picked out the city of Pau, with its views of the Pyrenees mountains, describing it as "very authentic," and listed wine bar Les Papilles Insolites as a top choice.
In the first year of the pandemic, Drappier, her husband and baby daughter did a road trip in Le Massif Central, a mountainous region in the south that she had little knowledge of. The remote Aubrac region was a highlight for her. She recommended Restaurant Serge Vieira, which has two Michelin stars, for its views of the countryside. She also suggested Le Suquet, which hit the headlines in 2018 when chef Sebastian Bras gave up his three Michelin stars, saying he no longer wanted to cook under such pressure.
Drappier also likes the Philippe Starck-designed hotel La Coorniche, "a gem of a place" on the site of a 1930s hunting lodge around an hour's drive south of Bordeaux. She also recommends Alice Cap Ferret, a nearby bookstore that doubles as a wine merchant.
Practical and emotional appeal
Cap Ferret, a residential area that stretches about two miles along a finger-shaped peninsula, is also beloved by Michael Baynes, a real estate agent from the U.K. who moved to France 15 years ago. He describes it as "very chichi" and popular with French people on vacation.
Baynes said France is popular for both practical and emotional reasons. "France is very well organized to receive guests. It's got excellent roads … transportation, whether it's train, road or aircraft, it's all relatively easy, so it is well-positioned to receive guests from all over the world," he told CNBC by phone.
Almost all businesses in France are small- or medium-sized, with 99.9% having fewer than 250 employees, according to the OECD. Baynes said many of the smaller hospitality firms are family-run and of "high quality." He added: "If you go online and you're [looking for] high quality bedrooms in the Bordeaux region, you're going to get a long list of really good quality options. And these are … family-run businesses that often do terrific food as well."
"On the emotional side … it's just a stunning place. I lived in Southern California, which some people consider as paradise, in a place called Orange County … and I moved [to France] almost 15 years ago and have not looked back," Baynes said. He is based in the Dordogne region and his real estate firm Maxwell-Baynes sells luxury homes in southwest France to French and American clients as well as to those in other European countries and Israel.
At the top of Baynes's list of places to visit is La Rochelle, a small beachside city in western France, which he rates highly for shopping, restaurants and beaches, as well as for being less expensive than other places. The islands of Ile de Rey and Ile d'Oleron, connected to La Rochelle by bridge, are good for cycling and seafood and are "unknown" to many, Baynes said.
As for better-known places, he likes Cannes, on the French Riviera. "I love the elegance of it … it's a place where you can put on a particular jacket that you only save for certain occasions, or if it's in the winter, you might put on your Moncler [coat]," he stated.