"There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make," wrote the Scots playwright J M Barrie. Seventy years later, his words have a new currency with figures showing that Scottish tourism is steaming ahead of the rest of the UK.

"There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make," wrote the Scots playwright J M Barrie. Seventy years later, his words have a new currency with figures showing that Scottish tourism is steaming ahead of the rest of the UK.

While tourist numbers for the rest of the UK climbed 12 per cent last year, they soared by 20 per cent north of the border, according to the latest International Passenger Survey.

Experts put Scotland's success down to the country's transport links and its ability to cash in on niche holidays, including golfing and mountain biking, cultural city breaks and holidays specially tailored to the gay community.

The country's tourist authority, VisitScotland, has worked hard to promote the country as a destination for long and short-break travellers, encouraging the millions of the Scottish diaspora to return "home". Patricia Ferguson, the MSP and Scotland's Tourism Minister, said: "I believe we are beginning to reap the rewards of increased marketing activity, increased air and ferry routes into Scotland and an upturn in the quality of the tourism experience.

"The number of visitors coming from both EU and non-EU countries is considerably higher than the UK average. I believe this is in no small part due to continued investment in opening new routes to Scotland from Europe."

Figures from last year showed that holidaymakers coming to Scotland from Europe (EU and non-EU countries) were up 13 per cent on the previous year, while there was also a rise in the number of tourists from America and the rest of the world, despite an overall downturn in global travel. Earlier this month, VisitScotland increased its efforts to attract more Americans to Scotland with a high-profile presence at the New York Tartan Week celebrations.

The agency used a specially designed super-sized Scottish village - its marketing tool - at the Vanderbilt Hall in New York's Grand Central Station, seeking to catch the attention of the half a million people passing through the station each day. By the end of the week VisitScotland estimated that the village had been seen by more people than the entire population of Scotland.

"Roots tourism" has become a major money-earner as the industry attempts to cash in on the history shared between Scots descendants and the "old country". Tourism is Scotland's biggest sustainable industry, raking in more than £4.4bn a year from 18 million visitors and VisitScotland now aims to raise income from visitors by 50 per cent within 10 years. Tourism accounts for 5 per cent of the country's GDP, employing 197,000 people and paying the wages of more workers than the oil, gas and whisky industries combined. It is estimated that for every £1 the agency spends on promotion, £12 is generated in return on behalf of Scotland's tourism industry.

Phillip Riddle, the agency's chief executive, says there is no room for complacency. "People can come on a budget airline and spend a fortune," he said. "The industry is adapting to this short-break market, which has been the big growth area over the past few years. It does require us to be more flexible. It requires us to be more attentive to people who want to come for that short period. It is a different market from some years ago when people were coming for two or three weeks, perhaps spending less."

While new direct air and ferry links have helped draw tourists, industry experts admit internal transport needs to be improved; most of the country's attractions lie within its central belt, and there are calls for better transport to spread the wealth.

David West, of Loch Lomond Seaplanes, the UK's only commercial seaplane service, said: "Many short-break visitors don't have time to spend a day driving here and there so they ask us to take them. What may only be a 15-minute flight can take several hours by car or bus.

"There really is a need to improve internal links and we can do that without the need for expensive runways and damage to the environment."

The top ten attractions

* 1. Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, 1,172,534 visitors. More than one thousand years of history sit on the famous volcanic rock that dominates the city. Described as the castle of castles, it is visitors' number one destination.

* 2. World Famous Old Blacksmith's Shop Centre, Gretna Green, 715,556. Dating from when runaway marriages became the vogue, it has a reputation as the first place over the border where English elopers could marry.

* 3. Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 706,161. The Garden, founded in the 17th century, is now primarily a scientific institution. Its grounds are notable for a world-famous rock garden, peat and woodland areas.

* 4. Royal Museum and Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 686,531. The Royal Museum houses important international collections of decorative arts, science and industry, archaeology and the natural world.

* 5. Edinburgh Zoo, Edinburgh, 614,571. The zoo is the largest wildlife attraction in Scotland with more than 1,000 animals and is heavily involved in promoting animal welfare, conservation and environmental education.

* 6. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 434,429. Home to Scotland's national collection of art since 1859, the National Gallery has a works encompassing the 14th century to the present day.

* 7. Glasgow Science Centre, Glasgow, 416,924. The gleaming titanium crescent overlooking the Clyde is packed with hands-on exhibits, interactive workshops, labs on three floors and one of the finest planetaria in the world.

* 8. New Lanark Village and Visitor Centre, Lanark, 404,500. Founded in 1785 as a model industrial town, New Lanark is now a beautifully restored 18th-century cotton mill village. It is an award-winning World Heritage site.

* 9. Museum of Transport, Glasgow, 404,107. The 40-year-old museum houses nationally and internationally important vehicles. It also has the oldest pedal cycle and a fine collection of Scottish-built cars.

* 10. St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, 402,550. The City Church of Edinburgh, with its crown spire on the Royal Mile between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, St Giles is also the High Kirk of Edinburgh.