London Eye on top of the world as it becomes best tourist attraction

For a structure dismissed by planners, it is amazing that the London Eye ever made it to tower over the capital's skyline.

But five years on, the giant wheel has earned its place among the world's most famous landmarks, beating the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and the leaning tower of Pisa in a poll.

The 135m-high Eye on the south bank of the Thames was voted the world's best tourist attraction, above the likes of the Sydney Opera House and the Vatican in Rome.

The wheel's success contrasts with its ignominious beginnings. When the designers submitted plans for the structure as a competition entry, no one won and the competition was scrapped. And when Lambeth council did grant planning permission it reserved the right to pull down the Eye after five years, although it is now safe until 2027.

The Eye was chosen as the site people would most like to see in the Ultimate Destinations poll, commissioned by the crisp makers Pringles. In the survey, 2,000 voters were asked to choose their ultimate tourist destination from 11 international sites.

Elliott Frisby, a spokesman for VisitBritain, said the London Eye represented the modern face of Britain.

"I think it encapsulates the contemporary side of our attractions. We are known around the world for our history but the London Eye is a modern monument.

"It is not just the attraction itself but the wonderful views of other London attractions such as the Houses of Parliament and St Paul's Cathedral that make it so special," he said.

Mr Frisby said it was the top paid-for attraction based on VisitBritain's figures for 2003, drawing 3.7 million visitors, compared with the 1.97 million visitors who went to the Tower of London, Britain's second most popular tourist destination.

The husband and wife team that created the London Eye, the architects David Marks and Julia Barfield, formulated the idea for a giant wheel by the Thames in 1993 on their kitchen table in south London.

Ms Barfield said on the London Eye website: "From the beginning we wanted to create something uplifting - something that would delight."

When it was built over a period of 16 months for the millennium, it was the largest observation wheel ever built and the only cantilevered structure of its kind in the world. It was also the largest structure ever hoisted into a vertical position in one operation, and more than 1,700 people from five countries were involved in erecting it.

Since it opened in 2000, it has welcomed more than 18 million visitors and won more than 40 awards for tourism, architecture and engineering. It recently had its original five-year planning permission extended by another 24 years.

In the survey, the Palace of Westminster was voted the most recognisable government building, over contenders which included the White House in Washington and the United Nations headquarters in New York.

But London came second to New York in the shopping stakes. Bloomingdale's was voted the world's best department store over Harrods and Selfridges.

The Great Wall of China was voted best wonder of the medieval world while the Pyramids in Egypt won the vote for the best ancient wonder.

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