France visitor numbers up in 2015 despite attacks

Paris (AFP) - The number of foreign visitors to France grew in 2015 despite jihadist attacks in Paris thanks to a sharp rise in tourists from Asia, Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Friday.

France retained its crown as the world's top tourist destination with a total of 84.5 million visitors last year, an increase of 0.9 percent on 2014.

Ayrault said the attacks on November 13, in which 130 people were killed when Islamic State group gunmen and bombers attacked Paris, "limited this growth, especially in the capital".

A "spectacular rise" of 22.7 percent in the number of tourists from Asia accounted for much of the increase.

The lure of the Eiffel Tower, upmarket shopping in Paris and rustic Provence helped attract more then two million Chinese tourists to France for the first time.

"The number of Chinese tourists passed the symbolic bar of two million for the first time, and reached 2.2 million," Ayrault said.

More than half a million Indians also visited France.

In 2014, France reduced the time for visas to be issued to 48 hours for visitors from China, India and Singapore.

That helped to boost the number of visas issued to Chinese visitors by 38 percent in 2015 and requests for visas from Indian nationals surged up 48 percent.

Visitors from the United States were also up, by more than 15 percent, but there was a dip of 1.5 percent in the number of tourists from Europe.

"The fall in European visitors was mainly due to a decrease in German and Swiss tourists," Ayrault said.

One in ten Germans stayed away compared with 2014, and Swiss visitors were down 6.5 percent.

But visitors from Britain, up 3.3 percent, as well as Italy and Spain helped compensate for the decrease from other European countries.

Official figures released Thursday showed the effect of the November attacks, with a sharp fall of 16.5 percent in overnight stays in December across all categories of accommodation.

In August last year, then-foreign minister Laurent Fabius said he hoped France would break through the barrier of 85 million visitors in 2015.

The figure did in fact reach 85 million if visitors to France's overseas territories are included.

- Paris mayor in Tokyo -

The annual study of visitor numbers "confirms that France remains the top tourist destination in the world."

Ayrault said his aim "remains to attract 100 million foreign tourists a year to France by 2020".

In a bid to woo Chinese visitors following the attacks, Paris welcomed 55 Chinese tour operators in February to reassure them over security in the city.

And Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo travelled to Tokyo in February with the same mission.

"Come to Paris," she said. "We have of course suffered but today people in Paris live, work, go out."

Visitors from Japan were down 20 percent over the first 10 months of 2015 following the January attacks on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket, and the numbers dipped further after the November attacks.