LONDON (CNN) — Amid leaden wintry skies, it may come as a surprise to Londoners but new figures suggest the city has beaten its arch rival, Paris, to become the world’s most popular city for tourists.
However, a growing spat between the the two cities’ administrations suggests that, when it comes to comparisons between London and Paris, there are only lies, damn lies and statistics.
Figures released this week by the UK’s Office for National Statistics show that 4.9 million people visited London from July to September 2013.
That was an increase of 20% on the same period in the previous year — during which London hosted the Olympics — and a new quarterly record.
Taking a wider view, for the first nine months of 2013, 12.8 million visitors flocked to the British capital, an increase of 12% compared with the previous year.
The figures prompted the city’s promotional body, London and Partners, to proclaim that London was “on course to welcome over 16 million visitors in one year.”
That in turn has led to reports in Britain and abroad that London has trumped Paris as the most visited city in the world.
The two cities have actually swapped the top spot on various lists in recent years.
According to the MasterCard Global Destinations Cities Index for 2012, London narrowly beat out Paris for the top spot with 16.9 million visitors.
‘Greatest city on the planet’
For the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the statistics only underlined the obvious.
“These incredible figures prove that London is without doubt the greatest city on the planet,” he said.
“With so many fascinating museums, the best theater scene in the world, more green space than any other European city, numerous top sporting venues, a low crime rate and much else besides, it’s no wonder that people from all over the globe are flocking to London in record numbers.”
A long, hot summer, Andy Murray’s Wimbledon win, the birth of Prince George and blockbuster West Ends shows including “The Book of Mormon” were put forward as potential reasons for the surge in tourist numbers, along with the legacy of the Olympics from the year before.
Top London attractions such as the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral said visitor numbers were “through the roof” last summer, with an increase of 17% on 2012, the London Evening Standard reported.
St. Paul’s welcomed 353,463 visitors between May and August, up by almost half on 2012.
Spat turns nasty
All pretty impressive, but it turns out that the source of London’s promotion to top tourist spot was none other than … French.
Proclaiming “London dethrones Paris,” the conservative daily Le Figaro had compared London’s projected 16 million visitors with a 2012 figure of 15.9 million visitors to Paris.
Things have only got nastier since.
Seizing on the comparison, Paris’s right wing mayoral candidate, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, claimed the numbers showed Paris’s Socialist administration as failing the city.
That’s just Paris bashing, one of those Socialists, Paris’s deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo, retorted.
Other figures, her office said, revealed Paris still to be beating the sprawling, unsophisticated pretender over La Manche when it comes to pulling in tourists.
Indeed, London is in some ways just a “suburb” of the far more attractive French capital, she told reporters.
Paris ‘still No. 1’
“Like it or not, while London may have attracted more visitors around the Olympic Games, Paris remains the number one world tourist destination, even if we only include foreign visitors and not national ones,” Hidalgo said.
London was “boastful” about its strengths, even deceptive, whereas the French were “rational” in their self assessments.
“London aggressively sells itself … in a way that goes beyond the truth. We are more rational in our communication when speaking about Paris’s strengths,” Hidalgo said.
In 2012, 29 million domestic and foreign tourists visited the wider city of Paris, Hidalgo’s office said.
By contrast, Greater London — 10 times larger — pulled in only 27.6 million tourists of all nationalities.
While clearly superior intellectually to Londoners, Parisians could, Hidalgo conceded, appear “arrogant.”
“We could be a bit more amiable,” she said.
“I often tell people they must smile more. It costs nothing.”
Gordon Ramsay weighs in
Parisian spluttering be damned, London and Partners has used its figures to promote a new video campaign, The London Story, in which well known Londoners reveal what they most love about the city.
Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay says: “You can’t beat a good London curry. I’ve been to India but I find curries in Brick Lane [in the East End] better.
It’s not just curries.
“There’s nowhere better in the world to eat than in London,” says Ramsay.
“A great thing about London is shopping,” adds Sixties It girl Twiggy. “What girl doesn’t love shopping? London is the best — we’ve always been the best in fashion.”