Lancashire hotspots: Northern cities experience tourism boom

More than 40 per cent of visitors to the UK now include an overnight stay outside London

Northern England has thrown off its international reputation as a place of dark satanic mills and boarded-up terraces by confirming its position in the ranks of Britain's top tourist destinations.

The post-industrial renaissance of Manchester and Liverpool as well as Birmingham in the West Midlands has seen the cities eclipse the popularity of more traditional – and picturesque – tourism hot spots such as Oxford and Cambridge to report record increases in the number of visitors last year.

Figures from the national tourism agency VisitBritain show that while London and Edinburgh continue to dominate holiday itineraries, the reinvention of provincial cities is paying lucrative dividends.

More than four in 10 visitors to the UK now include an overnight stay in England outside the capital, the figures showed. In 2011 the number of people staying overnight in Manchester and neighbouring Salford rose 15 per cent to 936,000 – putting it in third place behind the English and Scots capitals.

The popularity of the city's two Premiership football teams, its shops, bars and restaurants and the development of Salford Quays, home to the Imperial War Museum North, the BBC and The Lowry arts centre are helping drive the boom, it was claimed.

Meanwhile, Liverpool, which has undergone a major refurbishment of its city centre shopping district, waterfront and enjoyed a multimillion pound cultural makeover in the past five years, overtook Glasgow for the first time to join the top five.

Patricia Yates, of VisitBritain, said: "These results confirm international visitors who might come here because of the global appeal of London are starting to appreciate our vibrant cities outside the capital, and the very different offerings of Edinburgh Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester."

Despite the euro crisis and global recession fears, 2011 proved a record year. The number of international visits hit 30.6 million while spending topped a record £17.2bn.

And amid mounting fears that the Olympics could lead to a reduction in tourists this year, as people stay away deterred by rocketing hotel prices and security fears, the early indications are that numbers are likely to remain broadly flat on last year – although still up on 2010.

Claire McColgan, director of culture at Liverpool City Council, said art, sport and events had been a central driver to the city's new confidence following its year as European Capital of Culture in 2008. "You cannot just sit back and say 'We have done that now'. Outside London you have to keep telling a different story all the time so that you keep getting people coming back. It is not just all about Beatles and football," she said.

In 2010-11, culture and the arts generated £1.6bn for the local economy and now supports an estimated 23,000 jobs in the city. Last month's Sea Odyssey celebration lured an estimated one million visitors to the Mersey waterfront. Liverpool's new arena and convention centre have also proved a magnet for high-end tourism.

Julia Fawcett, chief executive of The Lowry, also welcomed the figures. The £106m centre is the most popular tourist destination in Greater Manchester attracting 834,748 visitors last year.

Northern highlights: Top five attractions

The Lowry The arts complex was built 12 years ago and has led the regeneration of the Salford Quays. It is now the most popular attraction in Greater Manchester.

Another Place Antony Gormley's replicas of his own body on Crosby beach are submerged each day by the encroaching tide. Plans to move them to New York were dropped.

Sea Odyssey Liverpool Giant puppet display to coincide with the centenary of the Titanic was expected to attract 250,000 visitors. In the end more than a million turned up.

Manchester's beautiful game The world's most popular football team, United, now have competition from rivals Man City, delivering another boost to the city.

Arndale Centre Manchester's 1.5m sq ft shopping space attracts more than 38 million visitors a year. Its partial destruction in the 1996 IRA bombing led to the regeneration of Manchester city centre.

Britain's most visited: Tourist numbers

15m London

1.3m Edinburgh

0.9m Manchester

0.7m Birmingham

0.5m Liverpool