Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol are fast becoming rival attractions to London and Edinburgh for international visitors
The Lowry Centre, one of the attractions pulling in tourists to Greater Manchester. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
In the days when they were the powerhouses of Britain’s industrial revolution they were renowned for their "dark satanic mills". Now Britain’s largest industrial cities have become magnets for international visitors, according to official tourism figures which reveal that the towns were among the UK’s most popular destinations last year.
London and Edinburgh still reign supreme as the two most popular urban destinations in the UK, but Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol are fast becoming rival attractions.
The rise of these cities is highlighted in an analysis by the national tourism agency VisitBritain of overnight stays by overseas visitors in UK cities in 2011. London had 15.2 million overseas visitors and Edinburgh 1.3 million.
Manchester, with its two top-flight football teams, ultra-modern landmark buildings such as the Lowry Centre, and state-of-the-art BBC media centre (which is open to tourists), clocked up 936,000 visits, up 15% on 2010.
Birmingham was fourth with 732,000 overseas visitors, many of them attracted by its arts scene, exhibitions and the Bullring shopping centre.
Liverpool also saw a 15% rise, to 545,000 visitors, overtaking Glasgow for fifth place. Oxford, in seventh place, was up 12%.
Beyond the top 10, Leeds, Cardiff, Aberdeen, Windsor, Carlisle, Stratford-upon-Avon, Newquay, Harrogate and Cheltenham all experienced higher numbers of international visits than was the case in 2010.
Visits to the south-east (excluding London) increased by 2%. The Isle of Wight saw an increase of 14%, achieving a record 62,000 visits from abroad.
Patricia Yates, strategy and communications director for VisitBritain, said: "These results confirm that 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."