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Tourists enjoy the sunny weather in front of the Eiffel tower in Paris March 14, 2014. REUTERS/Charles Platiau


By Nicholas Vinocur

PARIS (Reuters) - France kept its title as the world's top tourist destination in 2013, drawing nearly 85 million visitors despite a lacklustre economic situation as Chinese interest intensified and North Americans surged back to the country.

With its Mediterranean beaches and skiable mountain ranges, rich architectural heritage and tourist attractions ranging from Versailles to Euro Disney, France grew even more popular last year, welcoming 2 percent more visitors than in 2012.

It kept its top ranking ahead of the United States, which drew 69.8 million visitors, and Spain, with 60.7 million. Indeed, if France's tourists established their own country, it would be Europe's most populous by a margin of several million, Bank of France data showed.

The tourism figures, which showed the number of Chinese people visiting France had shot up by 23.4 percent, and tourists from India by 15.7 percent for a total 4.5 million from Asia, brought a rare bit of good news in an otherwise grim economic landscape.

France's unemployment rate is stuck at record highs above ten percent and economic growth data for the second-quarter, due to be unveiled on Aug. 14, is expected to show a meagre expansion of 0.1 percent.

Yet tourists chose to spent a total of nearly 600 million nights in France last year, an increase of 4.6 percent compared to 2012. The average duration of their stays - 7.1 days - was 2.5 percent longer than the previous year. Government estimates put the contribution of tourism at around 6.5 percent of GDP.

Visitors from North America - whose number fell dramatically during the global financial crisis - continued to flock back, showing 5.8 percent growth over the year, to 4.2 million.

The increased from North America and emerging markets offset a slight dropoff in visits from Spain, Brazil and Japan, which the Bank of France explained as a consequence of economic troubles in those countries.

In late June, President Francois Hollande's government had considered a sharp increase in the tourist tax to shore up government finances as it struggles to bring down a public deficit to within an EU target.

However, the planned hike was scrapped in July after virulent protests from local authorities and hotel managers, who said such an increase could kill demand at the start of the summer tourist season.

(Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Andrew Callus)

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