Whether you’re travelling to a city in your home country or setting off on a trip abroad, you no doubt have visits to a few famous places included in your itinerary. Landmarks and attractions often become synonymous with the culture and history of the city or country they are in, providing a point of focus for domestic and international tourism. They also bring in tonnes of cash.
At Smart Currency Exchange, we wondered which of the world’s attractions made the most money. So, we put together a list of 10 of the most popular landmarks, theme parks and points of interest, in terms of annual visitors. Then, we found out the cost of one adult ticket or unit of similar value and used that to work out an estimated value for each attraction. See the results, and a run-down of the top ten, below.
Note: When putting together our list, we found many sites and attractions that received millions of visitors but were technically free to visit — mostly in the US. These included the Las Vegas Strip, Times Square, the Pentagon, and Central Park. These no doubt bring plenty of money into their local economies, but it’s difficult to compare them to the likes of The Louvre and the Empire State Building, which have entry fees and costs that bring money directly to the attraction itself. So, although lucrative, they weren’t classed as attractions for the purposes of this study.
1. Niagara Falls, The US/Canadian Border
Niagara Falls is a natural site made up of three huge waterfalls, the largest and most powerful in the whole of North America. It’s estimated that Niagara Falls attracts 22.5 million visitors a year, by far the highest number on this list, which is no doubt the reason why it is the most lucrative attraction. If every visitor bought a ticket to board the Maid of the Mist, the famous tour boat that allows you to get drenched by the falls, the attraction would generate over £410 million a year. And, considering the amount of money that tourism to Niagara Falls brings to both the American and Canadian economies, the site surely has earned its place at the top of our list.
2. Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE
Completed in 2010, the Burj Khalifa is now the world’s tallest structure. It measures a whopping 829.8 metres and is comprised of 163 floors, including a luxury hotel, apartments, offices, and the highest restaurant in the world. The building’s main observatory is on the 124th floor which costs £35 to access, and if you really want to take in the view, there is another observatory on the 148th floor. There are also plenty of VIP packages to consider purchasing. 6.2 million people make the trip every year (with the potential to spend £217 million in total, based on one adult ticket to visit the lower observation deck), it’s safe to say the Burj Khalifa is a very lucrative attraction indeed.
3. Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia
There are few buildings in the world as instantly recognisable as Sydney Opera House, which has become as much of a symbol for its city as Big Ben has for London, or the Statue of Liberty has for New York, and even the Eiffel Tower has for Paris. You can’t enter the opera house unless you pay for a guided tour, which would set you back £22 (converted from AUD), or if you have tickets to attend a show there. Assuming every visitor paid for a tour, the Opera house would make £182 million a year — but that’s not taking into consideration the amount of tourism this iconic building has generated for Australia since opening in 1973.
4. Oxford University, Oxford, UK
A somewhat surprising inclusion on this list is Oxford University, home of the Bodleian library (one of the oldest libraries in Europe and the second-largest library in the UK), and filming location of several of the Harry Potter movies. A tour of Oxford University with an alumni guide costs £20, and considering Oxford University welcomes 7 million tourists a year, it’s earned its place on our list of lucrative attractions. Not every visitor will pay for a tour, of course, but they will no doubt contribute to the local economy by travelling, shopping, and dining in the area.
5. The Louvre, Paris, France
The Louvre is the best-attended art museum in the world, and the second largest, recognisable by its distinctive glass pyramid and underground lobby. The museum welcomes 9.2 million visitors a year to view some of the most famous and expensive paintings and sculptures known to man, including the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. An adult ticket costs just £14 online (converted from EUR), but the sheer number of people who visit the Louvre means it has the potential to generate £134 million a year.
6. The Empire State Building, New York City, USA
The Empire State Building charges £30 for an 86th floor observatory pass. From here, you can see the bulk of New York’s most famous landmarks, including Central Park, Times Square and the Statue of Liberty. You can even see six distinct US states from the tower on a clear day: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Delaware. But the Empire State Building is an iconic landmark in its own right. Built in 1930 with a distinctive Art Deco design, the skyscraper attracts 4 million domestic and international visitors per year.
7. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA
The second most lucrative art museum on our list (behind the Louvre) is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met is the largest gallery in America and attracts around 6.1 million visitors a year, both domestic and international. Inside, you’ll find paintings, sculptures, and other artworks dating from Ancient Egypt to the present day, including works by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, and many more. General admission tickets cost a pricy $25 (£18.05), but you can get into the Met for free if you live or study in New York.
8. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
The Sagrada Familia is one of the most unique and recognisable churches in the world, designed by idiosyncratic Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. Construction started on the intricate cathedral in the 1800s, but it’s only scheduled to be finished in 2026 — a testament to its elaborate and complicated design. Despite this, over 4.7 million people visit the Sagrada Familia every year, and it holds mass on Sundays and holy days. Although a self-guided tour will set you back £22.24, the money raised by tickets and tourism contributes towards the construction costs.
9. The Colosseum, Rome, Italy
It’s impossible to think of the city of Rome without picturing the Colosseum. Once the site of gladiator contests and other forms of gory entertainment, it is now the most profitable tourist site in Italy. Despite being built over 2,000 years ago, the majority of the ancient amphitheatre is still standing and you (like 7.6 million others) can pay £13.60 to visit it. Included in that ticket price, you’ll also receive access to the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, so you can get a complete experience and learn all about the city of Rome’s ancient history.
10. Navy Pier, Chicago, USA
If you ever find yourself in Chicago, then you’ll no doubt have plans to experience Navy Pier. This water-side attraction brings in just as many annual visitors as the Louvre (9.2 million), who enjoy all the shopping, dining and fairground rides this bustling zone has to offer. The pier also benefits from a view across Lake Michigan, one of the five Great Lakes of North America. Access to the pier is technically free, although it does cost around £11 to park there for the day. And, when you consider the cost of each ride, meal, or shopping trip, it’s easy to imagine how the profits come rolling in.
Bonus: The most lucrative theme parks
When it comes to lucrative attractions, it’s important to remember that theme parks are designed to make money. So, we wondered: which theme parks are the most profitable?
It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that Disney resorts ended up at the top of our list of the most lucrative theme parks globally. In fact, according to our research, the various Disney parks around the world would almost make up the entirety of the top 10!
The original Disneyland Park in California takes the overall top spot, achieving the highest number of visitors per year and charging the highest ticket price. Assuming every visitor purchases an adult 1 Park Per Day ticket, the park would make nearly two and a half billion pounds per year.
Below is a ranking of the world’s most popular theme parks, according to their estimated value.
- Disneyland Park (Disneyland Resort), California USA, £2,448,600,000
- Magic Kingdom Park (Walt Disney World Resort), Florida USA £2,210,075,000
- Epcot Theme Park (Walt Disney World Resort) Florida USA, £1,401,819,000
- Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Walt Disney World Resort), Florida USA, £1,250,271,000
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom (The Walt Disney World Resort), Florida USA, £1,250,271,000
- Disney’s California Adventure (Disneyland Resort), California USA, £1,201,200,000
- Disneyland Paris, France, £958,048,000.00
- Islands of Adventure (Universal Orlando), Florida USA, £861,100,000
- Tokyo Disneyland (Tokyo Disney Resort), Japan, £799,981,000
- Universal Studios Hollywood, California USA, £761,100,000
- Tokyo DisneySea (Tokyo Disney Resort), Japan, £681,863,000
- Universal Studios Florida (Universal Orlando), Florida USA, £675,800,000
- Universal Studios Osaka, Japan, £522,927,000.
- Disneyland Hong Kong, Lantau Island, £397,578,000
There you have it! These are some of the most lucrative tourist attractions and landmarks in the world. Remember that for every standard ticket, there will be a cheaper pass or bundle available. In almost every case, it also works out less expensive to purchase your tickets in advance compared to paying for them at the door. So, if you’re smart about your travel plans, you can cut the cost of your visits and see the world’s best for less.
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