Once described as ‘Coketown’ after the fictional industrial city illustrated by Charles Dickens in his book ‘Hard Times,’ Bilbao was a grimy, blackened city in the early 1990s. Heavy industry was once the backbone of the region’s economy, but after the steel mills and shipyards shut down in the face of relentless competition from East Asia during the 1980s, Bilbao was left as a hollow shell of its former industrial glory.
In 1997, the city decided to do something about its depressive economic state – they placed a bet on modern art.
Funded entirely by the Basque Autonomous Government, the $150M Guggenheim Museum was not just another art museum. It was the catalyst for a $1.5B surge in economic development spending dedicated to making Bilbao a city of the future. From a sleek, new metro system, to dredging the city’s river and harbor for recreational sailing, the Guggenheim Museum paved the way for a city based on creative industries and services.
By every measure, Bilbao’s bet on the Guggenheim has proven to be a success, offering valuable lessons for other world cities looking to kickstart their economies with an injection of tourism dollars. If a modern art museum can register 700,000 visitors in its first 8 months alone, of which 25% were foreigners, it speaks volumes about the demand for novel tourism experiences.
In the attached video, my wife Tricia and I explore the tourism offerings of Bilbao 17 years after the opening of the Guggenheim. We look forward to returning to the city again soon!
For more on our experience in Bilbao, check out Tricia’s blog post: “Basking in Bilbao’s Renaissance: A Walking Tour of the Basque City”
For a look back at Bilbao in 1998, check out the UNESCO Courier.