France is tourism champion of 2010: UN body

France will be the world's most visited country in 2010 followed by the United States, with China and Spain battling for third place, the UN World Tourism Organisation said Thursday.

"France will remain number one," the secretary general of the Madrid-based body, Taleb Rifai, told a news conference.

China was now in fourth place but by the end of the year it "might overcome Spain," he added.

"China decided a few years ago that tourism should be a pillar of its economy, and it worked. The centre of gravity is moving towards China, and Asia in general."

By 2020 China will be the the world's most visited country as well as the top source of foreign tourists, Rifai said.

France attracted 74.2 million visitors in 2009 followed by the United States with 54.9 million visitors and Spain 52.2 million, according to the UN tourism body.

China, which as recently as 2000 received just eight million visitors, was the world's fourth most popular tourist destination in 2009 with 50.9 million visitors.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation will publish its tourism rankings for 2010 in January.

In terms of actual tourist spending, China overtook France to occupy fourth place last year.

Chinese tourists splurged 43.7 billion dollars (33 billion euros) on their travels abroad in 2009 despite the economic downturn, propping up other economies by eating out, occupying hotel rooms and visiting attractions, the organisation said in its latest bulletin.

That compared to 36.2 billion dollars in the previous year when China was the world's fifth biggest source of tourism spending.

Germany remained the world's top international tourism spender last year at 80.8 billion dollars, down from 91 billion dollars in 2008, followed by the United States and Britain.

Last month, the UN body announced it was working with China to draw up the country's first national tourism law.

Rifai said "2009 was the worst year ever in the last 60 years" for global tourism but the sector had bounced back this year and is expected to post growth in 2011 as well.

The UN body predicts international tourist arrivals will grow by 5.0-6.0 percent in 2010 to between 920 and 930 million arrivals, and will increase 4.0 percent in 2011.