World’s top 15 travel destinations

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(MoneyWatch) Life in the U.S. in the debris of the Great Recession is slowly beginning to improve. Consumer confidence, while still sensitive to trouble signs (Greece, anyone?), is creeping up. One sure sign: More American are taking vacations. According to recent data from the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries (OTTI), 8.1 million people traveled abroad in the first two months of the year. That’s a six percent increase over the same time period in 2011.

Americans who want to travel internationally but not contend with Europe’s unfavorable exchange rate are turning to less expensive destinations. Through February, travel to Central American had risen 25 percent and was up 11 percent to Asia, according to OTTI. Along with affordability, increased travel to these parts of the world was driven partly by the many tourist-friendly cities in the regions.

The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reports that Thailand is quickly becoming a go-to tourist destination. It’s the most popular country in Southeast Asia for international travelers and last year came in as the No. 11 country in the world as ranked by tourism receipts. Malaysia was No. 14 and Singapore No. 15

According to UNWTO, Thailand was one of five international destinations whose tourism receipts grew by more than $5 billion in 2011. The other four countries who saw a similar jump in tourism were the U.S., Spain, France, and Hong Kong.

Although a growing number of Americans are traveling to Latin America and Asia, Europe remains the most popular destination, with travel to the region up 9 percent in the first two months of the year. It’s not just U.S. tourists flocking to Europe — despite its economic woes, Europe draws the largest share of global tourism, at 45 percent. Tourism brought $463 billion into the European economy in 2011.

If Europe as a whole is the most popular region for travel, the U.S. is easily the world’s most visited country as ranked by how much foreign travelers spend. The U.S. last year brought in more than $116 billion in tourism receipts, nearly double second-place Spain ($59.3 billion), according to UNWTO. France ($53.8 billion), China ($58.5 billion), and Italy ($43 billion round out the top five.

United Nations World Tourism Barometer
Top destinations by international tourism receipts (based on 2011 data)

1. United States, $116.3 billion
2. Spain, $59.9 billion
3. France, $53.8 billion
4. China, $48.5 billion
5. Italy, $43.0 billion
6. Germany, $38.8 billion
7. United Kingdom, $35.9 billion
8. Australia, $31.4 billion
9. Macao (China), n/a
10. Hong Kong (China), $27.2 billion
11. Thailand, $26.3 billion
12. Turkey, $23.0 billion
13. Austria, $19.9 billion
14. Malaysia, $18.3 billion
15. Singapore, $18.0 billion

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