London owes its success in part to strong and, by some analyses, growing interest from the Middle East, in particular the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The rest of Europe and North America continue to be key areas from which visitors to Britain start their journeys. But, along with people from China and India, residents of Arabian Gulf nations are also looking to London as an attractive destination.
London and Partners, the agency responsible for promoting Britain’s capital, cites a 12-month period between October 2012 and September during which visits from Saudi Arabia rose by 27 per cent compared with the same period a year earlier. Visits from the UAE were up 10 per cent.
Britain’s official statistical service, the office for national statistics (ONS), calculates the number of visits from the UAE to the United Kingdom as a whole as 260,000 for the period.
Confirmation of percentage changes for London was not available from the ONS but was supported in data from the UK national tourism agency, VisitBritain.
The French newspaper Le Figaro’s contentious report on London changing places with Paris as the world’s most visited city said the British capital had “exploded” since reversing a trend of decline that lasted until the 1980s.
In 20 years, the population had grown dramatically and was on course to reach 9 million by 2020, 10 million a decade later.
“London did not suffer from the crisis” the paper said, perhaps debatably. “Restaurants are crowded, theatres are sold out, there is no room to sit in cafes. It attracts workers like a magnet from all over Europe and the world. Its growth is twice the average for the UK [and accounts for] half the jobs created nationwide.”
But the analysis is not exclusively positive. Le Figaro noted that with 12.5 per cent of the UK population enjoying 75 per cent greater prosperity than fellow citizens and including 60,000 new millionaires each year, London and its status as the European capital of finance suggested a city-state draining the rest of the country. The capital was also said to be struggling with its own problems of “congested public transport and airports, below-capacity housing and overstretched utilities weighing heavily on the daily lives of inhabitants”.
In terms of tourist appeal London and Paris seem evenly matched, offering a blend of similar and starkly differing attractions. Both have must-visit museums and historical landmarks galore but, while Paris is visually more stunning, London is seen by many – French people included – as livelier, more “cool”.
Yet Paris shows no intention of surrendering its presumption of world leadership.
The Paris city hall insists that early returns show strong visitor figures last year for such sites as the Eiffel Tower and the main museums along the banks of the River Seine. “At this stage, the numbers tend to maintain Paris as the world’s top tourism capital,” it said recently.
Anne Hidalgo, a former French government minister and now a socialist candidate for this year’s Paris mayoral elections, was quoted by the newspaper Libération as describing London as no more than a “Parisian suburb”.
The paper characterised the inter-city rivalry as “almost friendly” and raised doubts about press interpretations of comparative figures. Other media reports of the same comments mentioned Ms Hidalgo’s claims that London had more crime, fewer business start-ups and – echoing the statement from Paris city hall - fewer foreign visitors.
“Competition between the two giant metropolises is all well and good but we have to stick to the truth,” she said.
Ms Hidalgo offered two concessions: Paris pavements were dirtier than London’s – dogs being the main culprits; and Parisians needed to work on their notorious rudeness and try to be “kinder”.
The deputy mayor of London, Kit Malthouse, has been widely quoted in France in his attempts to extol his city’s qualities as saying the image of London had changed because of the Olympics. “People saw a beautiful, open, vibrant city stretching beyond the usual clichés about the queen and Beefeater gin,” he said.
But London-Paris arguments are not settled easily and do not always reflect nationalistic loyalties.
“Paris has the beauty,” says Marie-Hélène Taylor, a Frenchwoman who has lived in both capitals.
“London has soul and personality. But, then, my husband is English and has always preferred Paris.”