Image: Happy Valley
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Happy Valley in China's Guangdong Province features nine themed sections ranging from Cartoon City to Typhoon Bay.
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updated 1/30/2009 8:14:17 PM ET 2009-01-31T01:14:17

Amusement parks make a strong showing on the Forbes Traveler list of Eastern Asia’s most visited tourist attractions. From Universal Studios’ outpost in Osaka, Japan, to the Happy Valley theme park in Shenzhen, China, roller coasters and fantasy-themed lands draw millions annually.

But the thrill rides aren’t limited to amusement parks. At Hong Kong’s most visited attraction, Victoria Peak, 9 million-plus annual visitors have a choice of traveling to the 1,811-foot summit by bus or tram. The latter option, according to Hong Kong Tourism Board Publicity and Promotions Manager Lillibeth Bishop, is a “perpendicular funicular” that “feels like a thrill ride when you’re going down.” Bishop adds, “I prefer going up, so my heart doesn’t race as much.”

At the top, she explains, “You can see Victoria Harbour, and all these traditional junks, ocean liners and ships coming through. And the sunset drapes all of the city’s high rises. To me it’s not just a sight, it’s an experience. It makes you think, Life is beautiful after all.”

The popularity of Victoria Peak, high above the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong, points out another possible misconception that Western tourists may bring to the East: “A lot of people think of Hong Kong as only this big city,” Bishop says. “And many people don’t know there is this other side of Hong Kong that they’re missing out if they don’t explore. For example, there are a lot of hiking trails in Hong Kong.”

The popularity of both rural and urban attractions is borne out in the other Asian countries covered in our list. While millions flock to the ancient walled fortress, The Forbidden City, located in the populous capital of Beijing, they also come in droves to the more remote heights of Mount Tai, in China’s coastal Shandong Province. Taishan Temple lies at the foot of the mountain, and some 7,000 stone steps lead to the Azure Clouds Temple at the top. Between 6 and 8 million locals and foreigners visit the sacred mountain annually.

Alan Lew, co-author of “Tourism in China” and professor in the department of Geography, Planning and Recreation at Northern Arizona University, says visitors to China’s attractions may be growing. Both domestic and international travel is on the rise, he says, with in-country travel at about a billion trips a year and international visitation at approximately 42 million annual trips.

However, Lew adds, the high volume of domestic Chinese travel doesn’t always constitute heavy traffic to the iconic tourist sites known in the west. In the late 1990s, he explains, the government implemented a program called Golden Weeks. “Government employees used to get week-long vacations three times a year, and many Chinese took advantage of those holidays to travel — mostly back to their home villages,” Lew explains.

The boom in travel during these weeks “totally overwhelmed the transportation network,” Lew says. “So now China is going to start doing what most other countries do, spreading the holidays out, and having more three day weekends.”

How this change will affect tourism patterns remains to be seen. And while international visitation to China has steadily increased (especially during the 1990s, Lew says, when the government began opening more and more sites to foreigners), the effects of the recent global economic turmoil on tourism to China have yet to play out.

Image: Ming Tombs
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According to UNESCO World Heritage Center, The Ming Tombs comprise “the funeral sites of 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty, after its capital was moved to Beijing.”
In Hong Kong, says Lillibeth Bishop, “the economy already is impacting outbound travel to Hong Kong from the U.S.,” its No. 1 country source for the long-haul market. After steady increases through the middle of this year, Hong Kong Tourism Board’s visitor arrival statistics show a 15.5 percent decline in U.S. arrivals for August 2008 compared with August 2007. “People are hunkering down,” Bishop says.

Naoko Marutani, director of the Japan National Tourist Organization’s (JNTO) Los Angeles Office, also notes that travel to Japan has “been a bit slow given the recent and worldwide economic situation.” But she adds that the number of U.S. travelers to Japan had been increasing since 2004: “Japan has been running its ‘Visit Japan Campaign,’ introducing Japan as a tourist destination to overseas markets (including U.S.A) with a target of 10 million overseas travelers by year 2010.” To date, many of the millions who already travel to Japan seem to favor its myriad theme parks, five of which appear on the Forbes Traveler list. (We’ve excluded religious destinations from our tally: we have a separate annual list for travel to shrines of all faiths.)

So which mountain peak, soaring skyscraper or towering roller coaster draws the most visitors in East Asia? Read our slideshow to find out.

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