London 'dethrones' Paris as world's top tourist destination -- or does it?
British flag Big Ben London (AFP)

Strong growth in visitor numbers to London last year may threaten the French capital’s proud title as the world’s number-one tourist destination – a claim some say is politically motivated and impossible to verify.

Record numbers of tourists travelled to London in 2013, and Paris is expecting the past year to top its excellent 2012 figures – placing the two cities neck-and-neck for the title of top tourist spot in the world.

“For the first time in history, the city [of London] is on course to welcome over 16 million overseas visitors in one year,” the British capital’s tourism agency London & Partners said in a January 16 statement.

Its figures are projections based on passenger surveys compiled by the Office of National Statistics at UK transport hubs. Tourist numbers increased by 12 percent in the British capital in the first nine months of 2013.

No sooner had the London tourism agency spoken than journalists on both sides of the Channel began to compare tourism figures for London and Paris.

“It’s official: London is the most popular destination for tourists in the world,” wrote the local Evening Standard.

The headline on the website of right-wing daily Le Figaro was more explicit: “London dethrones Paris.” The story went on, “Although criteria may vary, Paris welcomed 15.9 million foreign visitors in 2012.”

When questioned about that number, a senior official at Paris City Hall told FRANCE 24: "We refute this extremely sloppy article, which compares 2012 figures inside the city of Paris with those for Greater London in 2013."

Audrey Epêche added that Paris figure, for which Le Figaro did not cite a source, “came out of nowhere.”

Julie Chappell, the director of consumer and digital marketing at the British capital’s tourism promotion agency London & Partners, steered clear of the competitive debate.

“We’re not focusing on comparing ourselves. We work very well with Paris. This is not on our agenda,” she told FRANCE 24.

Audrey Epêche suggested that the basis for Le Figaro's analysis was problematic. “We must compare what is comparable. In 2012, the city of Paris, which does not include attractions in the wider Paris region such as the Palaces of Versailles and Fontainebleau, attracted 29 million tourists of all nationalities.”

“Meanwhile, greater London, which covers a much wider area than the city of Paris, welcomed 27.6 million domestic and international tourists,” she added.

Official 2013 tourism figures for Paris have not yet been made public.

Link to upcoming local elections?

Two city hall staffers, who preferred to remain anonymous, pointed out that Le Figaro is a conservative newspaper, and that the article appears as the city of Paris prepares for mayoral and city council elections, scheduled for March.

Conservative mayoral candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet immediately promoted Le Figaro article on Twitter.

Her UMP party routinely cites Conservative-led London as a beacon of dynamism, in contrast with the decline they claim France is suffering under the left-wing coalition in power at the national and local levels.

The British capital is basking in the glow of the successful 2012 Olympic Games. “London was in the spotlight during the Olympics with so many events taking place in iconic locations, and again with the birth of the royal baby,” said Chappell.

She added that London was constantly improving its offering of attractions and events, with the Shard skyscraper opening in 2012 and the Tour de France headed to the city in 2014.

Strangely enough, Paris and London’s competition for global tourists is largely focused on each other’s citizens. French nationals are the second largest group of tourists in the British capital and vice-versa – with American visitors dominating both destinations.