The number of foreign tourists visiting Vietnam reached an all-time high of 18 million in 2019, up 16.2 percent year-on-year.

Most visitors arrived by air, accounting for over 80 percent of the total, a 15 percent rise against 2018, the General Statistics Office said on Saturday.

The growth was driven mainly by Asian tourists, with 14.3 million people from the continent touching down in 2019, up 19 percent.

China remained the largest source of visitors, accounting for 5.8 million, followed by South Korea (4.3 million), the same as the previous year. Japan came third with 952,000 tourists, rising by 15.2 percent, followed by Taiwan with 926,000 arrivals, a 29.8 percent year-on-year increase.

Thailand topped in terms of growth,with a 45.9 percent rise taking the number to 509,000. The recent launch of direct flights from top tourist destinations in Vietnam like Da Nang, Nha Trang and Da Lat with their counterparts in Thailand pushing this growth, market observers said.

On December 23 low-cost carrier Vietjet Air begun a  daily service between Ho Chi Minh City and Thailands resort city Pattaya, which has the worlds largest red light district and been the busiest tourist destination in Southeast Asia for years. Vietnam Airlines began daily Da Nang-Bangkok and thrice weekly HCMC-Phuket flights last month.

The number of European tourists traveling to Vietnam is estimated to reach 2.1 million, up 6.4 percent from a year ago and all European markets have witnessed a growth.

Vietnam has launched an online visa system for travelers on short holidays or casual business trips. It has also added 35 more countries, including emerging tourism markets in Europe, to the list of those whose nationals can visit the country with e-visas, raising the list of beneficiaries to 80. For the full list of eligible nationalities, click here.

Visitors from Russia, Japan, South Korea, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Belarus will continue to enjoy Vietnamese visa exemptions for three more years. It had begun in 2015 and was set to expire on December 31 this year.

European countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Belarus are emerging tourism markets for Vietnam. Western Europeans spend an average of $1,316 per trip while overall foreign visitors spend $900, official data shows.

The government has been making greater efforts to make tourism an economic spearhead. The country has also improved its tourism competitiveness ranking by four places to 63rd among 140 countries and territories in the biennial Travel and Tourism Competitiveness report by the World Economic Forum in 2019.

2019 has been a bumper year for tourism industry, with the country reaping a harvest of prestigious awards. It won the top prize in the leading heritage destination category at the World Travel Awards (WTA) in Muscat, Oman last month.

In October it had been chosen as Asia’s leading culinary destination at the Asia and Oceania WTA awards and the world’s best golf destination in 2019 at the international World Golf Awards.

With its visa waivers, the government expects 20.5 million visitors in 2020 and revenues of $35 billion, equivalent to 10 percent of GDP.