Thanks to Instagram and Pinterest, it’s easier than ever to experience serious wanderlust on a daily basis. Standup paddleboard with manatees? Check. Get lost in the Blue City in Morocco? Yes, please. Snorkel in the Great Blue Hole? Sign me up.
With so many destinations at their fingertips, travelers have to be really choosy when plotting their itineraries. Some regions of the world are trendy right now, which means they’re seeing more travelers than in years past. Others are experiencing natural disasters, economic crises and wars, which has made them less popular among travelers.
The World Tourism Organization (WTO), the arm of the United Nations that promotes and studies tourism around the world, has just released its updated World Tourism Barometer, which offers a window into short-term travel trends, ranging from how much money tourists are spending to which countries are welcoming the most visitors.
Here’s how the 15 regions of the world stacked up to each other when it came to international tourist arrivals in 2018. The top (and bottom) destinations on the list may surprise you.
Despite its crystal-clear, cerulean blue waters and picture-perfect beaches, the Caribbean struggled a bit in 2018, welcoming fewer tourists to its sunny shores than the year before.
The WTO suspects that some Caribbean islands are still trying to rebound from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Puerto Rico was hit particularly hard by Hurricane Maria, suffering at least $100 billion worth of damage, which likely contributed heavily to its 40 percent decrease in tourist arrivals. St. Maarten, which was struck by Hurricane Irma, fared even worse, experiencing a steep 69.3 percent drop in traffic.
Still, other parts of the Caribbean experienced “strong growth” in 2018, according to the WTO — the Dominican Republic and Jamaica were popular destinations for Americans and Europeans, for example, growing 6.2 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively.
But the leader of the pack was the Cayman Islands, which is surging in popularity thanks to an influx of new hotels (including luxe Grand Hyatt and Mandarin Oriental properties) and just-launched flights from Southwest and JetBlue.
14. Central America
Mother Nature also likely contributed to declining tourism in Central America, with places like Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras suffering extensive damage from Tropical Storm Nate in October 2017. Overall, the region saw a slight drop in tourist arrivals in 2018.
Even so, travelers weren’t avoiding Central America entirely. They flocked to happening destinations like El Salvador, where tourist arrivals were up 13.3 percent.
The place trending up most? Belize, known for its gorgeous sandy beaches, ancient Mayan ruins, and top-notch snorkeling and scuba-diving sites. The locale is famously home to the Great Blue Hole, a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with beautiful rock formations that look like icicles.
13. Northern Europe
Though places like Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland made it onto travelers’ itineraries in 2018, other countries in Northern Europe weren’t as appealing. Faring worst was the UK, which saw a 5 percent decrease in traffic in part because of the fluctuation of the pound.
Norway, too, struggled, dipping 2.5 percent. A victim of its own popularity, the country had surged so much in recent years that overcrowding became a problem, pushing travelers to look elsewhere last year.
Despite chatter that people may be losing interest in Iceland, it actually saw a healthy 8.2 percent increase in tourist arrivals in 2018. The country began an intense marketing campaign to attract tourists after the 2010 eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökul — and it seems to have paid off. Cheap flights from WOW air and other Icelandic airlines, plus ruggedly beautiful scenery, have continued to lure travelers from all over the world.
Oceania can thank a strong Australian dollar for its 3 percent growth in tourist arrivals in 2018, says the WTO. Australia saw a 5.2 percent increase in visitors, while New Zealand saw a 3.1 percent bump.
Smaller regions like Tuvalu, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu saw huge jumps in tourist traffic. Tuvalu, a remote and nearly undeveloped chain of nine small islands north of Fiji, is incredibly gorgeous, but somewhat difficult to get to — there are just two arriving flights each week. Once travelers arrive, however, they’re treated to first-rate scuba diving and snorkeling along the coral reefs, plus fishing, boating and historical attractions (including a few plane wrecks and other remnants left over from World War II).
11. South America
South America's uptick in tourism was spurred on by massive new interest in places like Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Guyana. Those countries are popular among people who live in nearby areas and Asia, according to the WTO.
Argentina, the most popular country in South America, saw a modest 3.5 percent uptick in traffic, though WTO experts expect that growth to accelerate in coming months. The weak Argentinian peso makes traveling to the country more affordable — and more appealing — for international tourists. From the high-energy nightlife in Buenos Aires to the awe-inspiring waterfalls inside Iguazu National Park (there are 275 in total!), Argentina has a little something for everyone to enjoy.
Ditto the fast-growing country of Ecuador, where sandy shores meet Amazonian rainforest and the staggering Andes mountains — not to mention the increasingly popular, wildlife-rich Galapagos Islands. No wonder more and more tourists are flocking there in droves.
10. North America
The United States and Mexico led the way for overall growth in North America, which saw a modest but healthy increase in tourism traffic in 2018 (though the WTO notes this is likely to change as more data comes in). In addition to the United States' 6.9 percent spike, trips to Mexico increased 6 percent.
The countries that sent the most visitors to the United States in 2018 include the United Kingdom, China, Japan, Germany and India (all behind neighboring Mexico and Canada, of course), according to the National Travel and Tourism Office.
And where do people love to go once they arrive? New York City, Maui and Las Vegas are their top three favorite destinations, according to TripAdvisor’s 2018 Travelers’ Choice Awards.
9. South Asia
Visits to Nepal and Sri Lanka were up in 2018, which helped contribute to an overall boost in tourist arrivals in the South Asia region. India and the Maldives also saw more tourists year over year.
Travelers were inspired to visit Nepal by several promotional campaigns, which primarily reached tourists in India, China and Europe, according to the WTO.
The country also boasts a number of cultural and religious heritage sites, like the Changu Narayan Temple and Bhaktapur Durbar Square, as well as ample opportunity for outdoor recreation in the Himalayas.
8. Western Europe
It was a good year for Belgium, France and Liechtenstein, which all saw strong growth for international tourist arrivals. All told, nearly every country in Western Europe saw an increase in tourism traffic in 2018, leading to a 5.6 percent increase for the region overall. (The one notable exception, Luxembourg, had an exceptional year in 2017, and was probably just cooling off from that.) The WTO credits good weather during the summer months for the region’s bump, which led to lots of local travel in the area.
France alone saw a 7.7 percent increase in tourist traffic, another sign that it has rebounded from low numbers following a string of terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016. However, so many people are visiting France again that popular sites like the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre and Carcassonne are now overrun with visitors.
The country's neighbor of Belgium also suffered as a result of tourism attacks in 2017, but pushed hard to rebound and came back strong last year. The country is known for its exemplary beer and food scene, which connoisseurs continue to love.
7. North-East Asia
Thanks to strong growth in South Korea and Mongolia, the North-East Asia region had a banner year in 2018. Japan and Macao also saw strong numbers, which helped contribute to the 168 million tourists who visited the region in 2018.
The fastest-growing destination here, South Korea, was likely boosted by its high-profile hosting of the 2018 Olympics, in the thriving county of PyeongChang. Visitors to this area can enjoy the excellent ski slopes that made it an ideal host for the Winter Games.
Even the slowest-growing country, China — the largest destination in North-East Asia — is on the upswing.
According to the WTO, North-East Asia is poised to grow even more in the coming years. Experts predict that the opening of the Hong-Kong- Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which connects mainland China, Macau and Hong Kong, will increase the flow of people moving between the three destinations. The 34-mile bridge cost $20 billion to build (it took nine years!) and is the longest sea-crossing bridge ever built.
6. Subsaharan Africa
Places like Cabo Verde, Reunion, Kenya and Mauritius are leading the way for this increasingly popular region.
The fastest-growing destination here, the island of Reunion, is an overseas region of France located east of Madagascar. With its mix of black- and white-sand beaches, it's no surprise it's been increasing its profile among international visitors.
The next fastest-growing destination in the region, Cabo Verde (which until recently was named Cape Verde), is made up of 10 tropical islands located off the western coast of Senegal and Mauritania. The sun shines nearly all year round here, and festivals and music play a prominent role.
South Africa, which is the most-visited country in Subsaharan Africa, only saw a modest 1.7 percent increase in international arrivals, likely because of a drought in Cape Town and a strong currency, according to the WTO.
5. Central and Eastern Europe
More than 144 million people visited Central and Eastern Europe last year, representing a healthy increase over 2017. Hungary saw a 15.3 percent increase in tourism traffic, thanks in part to improved air connectivity, according to the WTO. The largest country in this region, Russia, saw just 1.4 percent growth among tourist arrivals but a 40 percent increase in tourism spending thanks to the FIFA World Cup that took place in June and July.
But the best-performing country, perhaps surprisingly, was Kazakhstan. Located south of central Russia and west of China, this massive landlocked country is home to some incredible natural landscapes, like Charyn Canyon and Big Almaty Lake, as well as many awe-inspiring mosques. It’s also relatively easy to travel to Kazakhstan — the citizens of many countries, including the U.S., can visit for up to 30 days without a visa.
4. Southern/Mediterranean Europe
Nearly a dozen countries saw double-digit growth in the Southern and Mediterranean Europe region, with Slovenia and Turkey leading the way. Overall, some 286.2 million people visited this part of the world last year.
A favorable exchange rate drew more people to Turkey, which saw 22.6 percent growth in international visitors. Slovenia, which grew even more than Turkey, was bolstered by a boost in media attention, thanks in part to an increasingly acclaimed culinary scene; Slovenian chef Ana Roš is a rock star of the foodie world, and was named the best female chef in the world in 2017.
Greece, where international visits grew by 10.8 percent, benefited by attracting more Chinese, Arab and American tourists last year, which accounted for some of its growth, according to the WTO. Americans were also eager to travel to Italy, which helped boost that country’s numbers by 4.9 percent.
3. South-East Asia
International interest in Vietnam skyrocketed in 2018, as the country welcomed 15.5 million tourists from all over the world. With its flavorful local foods, affordability, varying terrain and bustling cities, it’s no surprise that the country is at the top of many travelers’ bucket lists. Ha Long Bay, for instance, is popular among kayakers, hikers and casual explorers who experience the blue-green waters and rocky formations on various boat tours.
All told, it was a good year for the South-East Asia region, which recorded 129.3 million international tourist arrivals. Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines also saw strong growth last year, thanks in part to additional visits from Chinese travelers.
2. Middle East
Nearly topping the list is the Middle East, where 63.6 million tourists headed in 2018. Visits to Egypt in particular ballooned last year. Saudi Arabia was also a popular choice among travelers, garnering a 30.3 percent increase. And since many travelers book joint tours, Jordan piggybacked off of Egypt’s popularity and saw a 7.7 percent increase in international traffic.
In Egypt, tourists embraced Cairo, which made the top 10 list for Middle East destinations in the 2018 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards. The country’s capital city offers easy access to the famed Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, as well as the mummies and artifacts of the Egyptian Museum.
1. North Africa
The fastest-growing region in the world is North Africa, which welcomed nearly 24 million visitors in 2018.
The WTO credits “the lifting of negative travel advice” for a surge in European tourists visiting Tunisia, which saw incredible growth over the previous year.
Tunisia, home to more than 11 million people, offers a diverse mix of opportunities for tourists, from its picturesque Mediterranean beaches to the sand dunes of the Sahara. There are also a number of historical and cultural sites to visit, such as the Roman Coliseum at El Jem (which is one of the largest ancient amphitheaters in the world) and the remains of the ancient city of Carthage.