CHESTER Zoo is the second most visited paid-for attraction in England – welcoming almost 1.9 million visitors in the last year.

The zoo, which brings in almost £50m a year to the North West’s economy, enjoyed its highest ever ranking in VisitEngland’s annual attractions survey. 

Only the Tower of London attracts more visitors.

The survey, which gathered information from more than 1,500 attractions, found that historic houses and castles reported a seven per cent increase in visitor numbers, and country parks a four per cent increase.

Outdoor attractions performed particularly well, with gardens and zoos showing growth of eight per cent.

Jamie Christon, the zoo’s chief operating officer, said:  “The opening of our ground-breaking Islands habitats, taking visitors on an expedition through six South East Asian islands and bringing our overseas conservation work to life, is just one of many reasons that almost 1.9m people chose to spend their time with us last year.

“Thank you to every one of them. Every visitor who walks through our gates helps to fund the vital conservation work we deliver to protect threatened species here in the UK and all around the world.

“That is crucial to our success as people know their visit is making a difference. 

“The zoo jumping from fifth to second in the list of top attractions shows that desire within all of us to connect with wildlife.”

The zoo is home to more than 20,000 animals and 500 different species, spread across 125 acres of zoological gardens.

The last 12 months have seen lots of new arrivals at the award-winning attraction, including a baby giraffe and a pair of Red River hogs.

In June, two rare Eastern black rhino calves have been born in the same week, boosting global numbers of the critically endangered species.

Both calves were born on soft sand after pregnancies lasting around 15 months.

Zoo visitors have also been entertained by the antics of a special bear cub.

The first Andean bear to be born in mainland Great Britain has started to emerge from its den after spending months snuggled away with parents Lima and Bernardo.

Two baby Asian elephants were born to the zoo’s Hi Way family herd at the turn of the year.

Male calf Aayu was born in January, with keepers staying up overnight to monitor the birth on CCTV, and just a month after baby Indali was born.

Rare Asian elephants are highly threatened in the wild and conservationists at the zoo are working in India to protect the species.

Last month, the zoo outlined its vision to enhance its’ position as one of the world’s best conservation, animal and leisure attractions, between now and 2030.

Building on the success of the zoo’s ground-breaking Islands habitats, the remainder of the zoo will be transformed through the creation of large scale themed zones.

From immersive forests to expansive grasslands, these zones, which will be home to threatened species not currently at the zoo from pygmy hippos to Western lowland gorillas, will reflect the zoo’s vital global conservation work.

The tourism economy is worth £106 billion annually to England. 

Tourism Minister John Glen said: “We have an amazing range of world-class attractions that draw millions of visitors every year.

“Whether it’s our unique historic buildings, museums or stunning gardens, there is a huge amount to see and do.

“Ensuring that all parts of the country benefit from our tourism industry is a key government priority so it is fantastic to see such growth across the regions.”