Our newly favoured friends in the North

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It has Hadrian's Wall, Durham cathedral, Europe's biggest shopping centre and one of Britain's most unspoilt national parks. And Newcastle United.

Tourism chiefs believe the publicity generated by Kevin Keegan's football team has been the icing on the cake in Northumbria's rise to public consciousness.

Northumbria, the four north-eastern counties of Durham, Cleveland, Tyne and Wear and Northumberland, has shown the fastest growth in attracting overseas visitors of any English region over the past decade.

Last year it was the fastest growing destination for the British on holiday with a 23 per cent increase in numbers on the previous year and a 53 per cent rise in the amount they spent.

Peter Sloyan, Northumbria Tourist Board's chief executive, said: "It is a tribute to the people who make the beds, serve the teas and work in the craft shops. People have heard so much about collieries and shipyards and back-to-back houses that it has held us back in the past. But it appears that that perception is going."

American travel agents voted Newcastle the eighth best party-city in the world (the only English contender) while the Council for the Protection of Rural England found it the most tranquil area in the country. But football has been the big new contributor to the feel-good factor with Newcastle United, Middlesbrough and now Sunderland all in the Premiership.

Newcastle United was not surprised. "The sort of support we get here is absolutely staggering," a spokesman said.

The club's connection with the regeneration is close. Sir John Hall, its chairman, was behind Europe's largest shopping centre, the Metro, in Gateshead.

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