Recreating the “Bilbao Effect” easier said than done. Just ask Helsinki and Sheffield.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao © Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

The Guggenheim Bilbao Museum (© Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa)

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) “will be Canada’s fifth national museum and the first to be built outside of Ottawa,” an article in the Spring 2011 edition of Downtown Winnipeg magazine noted.

“Conservative estimates suggest more than 250,000 people will come to Winnipeg each year to visit the museum providing an economic benefit of more than $25 million.”

“Once the museum is complete, the structure will rival that of the Sydney Opera House, the Guggenheim or the Eiffel Tower,” the article quoted museum CEO Stuart Murray as saying.

It would certainly be a boon to the city’s tourism industry if those goals were to be met.

From the beginning, there have been hopes that the CMHR would pay for itself by creating a “Bilbao Effect” in the city, a phenomena named after the working-class Spanish city which suddenly became a major tourist destination after the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum opened to the public in 1997.

A 2007 report noted that the Guggenheim attracts an average of about 800,000 non-Basque visitors per year to Bilbao, the leading city of Spain’s northern Basque Country region, “possibly a world record for any third- or fourth-tier city”.

Can it be done in Winnipeg? There are some major challenges to be overcome.

The first will be to avoid having the “Bilbao Effect” turn into the “Sheffield Syndrome”.

Like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, England was to be a custom-designed iconic building drawing visitors from all over the British Isles and continental Europe when it opened in 1999.

Sheffield is, in some respects, similar to Winnipeg: an inland city about 270 kilometres north of London with a metro area population of 641,000.

The Centre opened with the expectation that 400,000 visitors per year would walk in off the street. That might have seemed like a reasonable estimate at the time, with 5 million people living within a 100-kilometre radius of Sheffield.

It soon became obvious that those projections were wildly optimistic. By its first anniversary, the National Centre for Popular Music had only drawn 150,000 visitors, plunging the Centre into a financial crisis.

There would be no second anniversary. The National Centre for Popular Music closed in June 2000, after only 15 months in operation.

Why did visitors flock to Bilbao and not to Sheffield?

Poor reviews were certainly one reason. “At Sheffield, instead of sex, drugs and dodgy business deals, we get neat videos depicting the history of dance from jive and jitterbug through the twist,” The Guardian‘s Jonathan Glancey wrote. “Nicely made, but soulless.”

Nicholas Barber of The Independent was blunter: “The fact that it offers you the chance to edit a Phil Collins live video only confirms my worst suspicion: this millennial celebration of popular music is stuck in the 1980s.”

Another probable reason, pithily summed up by British Conservative MP Michael Fabricant: “Sheffield is not sexy. It is old and dirty.”

The idea of a trip to Spain for the long weekend, however, just oozes sexiness.

Discount carriers offer London-Bilbao round trips — about 600 miles each way — for $200 to $300 Cdn., including taxes, fees, insurance and luggage charges.

Spain is also sunny and warm, and Bilbao itself is well-regarded for its architecture and gastronomy.

Climate can be a tremendous asset, or liability, as discovered by a research project which sought to understand why relatively few Europeans travel to Finland.

The research found that Finland suffered from a reputation as being a cold, summer-only destination with nothing particularly interesting, attractive or special to see. (Similar comments were made about Winnipeg in a 2008 focus group report prepared for the Department of Canadian Heritage.)

This contributed to problems faced by Helsinki’s architecturally stunning Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, a must-see if you actually make it to Helsinki.

Kiasma drew about 300,000 visitors through its doors annually when it first opened in the late ’90s, only to see numbers drop precipitously once the novelty wore off.

In 2009, only 174,000 visitors visited the Kiasma, partly due to the termination of a weekly “free admission day” program in order to address the museum’s revenue problems. This followed a 2008 study which concluded that only 30 percent of tourists even visited Kiasma while in Helsinki, despite a moderate admission rate for adults (10 Euro/$14 Cdn.) and free admission for minors.

This should raise questions about the ability of a museum to act as a powerful tourism generator in the absence of a wide variety of other activities or an exotic setting.

Another challenge for the CMHR will be to attract repeat visitors.

Repeat visitors will be important for the Museum because of Manitoba’s reliance on internal tourism. In 2008, 83 percent of all tourists in Manitoba were fellow Manitobans according to Travel Manitoba. Ten percent were from other parts of Canada, six percent were from the U.S., and one percent were from other countries.

The most likely possibility is that there will be some more tourism from other parts of Canada after the CMHR opens, as the museum and an expanded Convention Centre make the city more competitive as a convention destination.

While the CMHR will add significantly to the overall assortment of things to see and do in Winnipeg, it will likely only lead to a small rise at best in the number of Canadian or U.S. vacationers destined for Winnipeg, largely in the form of people visiting friends and family, small-towners coming in for a weekend in the city, and people passing through.

For more distant Canadians and Americans without ties to Winnipeg, a three-day holiday is uneconomical at round-trip airfares of $300-$700 per person and $100-$200 per night in accommodation costs, and a week-long holiday requires some careful planning in order to avoid running low on unique things to do, especially if you’re not into rural or wilderness tourism.

International visitors will likely continue to make up about one percent of tourists in Manitoba due to Winnipeg’s distance from the country’s main international gateways in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

If the Canadian Museum for Human Rights can overcome these challenges and succeed — and I hope they do — Winnipeg will be a much better place for it.

But replicating Bilbao’s rapid ascendancy as a “hot” tourist destination is easier said than done. Just ask Sheffield and Helsinki.

H/T: Winnipeg, Bilbao and Valencia (Anybody Want a Peanut?, Jan. 10, 2011)

About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

5 Responses to Recreating the “Bilbao Effect” easier said than done. Just ask Helsinki and Sheffield.

  1. bagnidilucca says:

    Helsinki is a beautifful city with a lot to offer. What a pity more people don’t visit – with or without a visit to Kiasma

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    Just doing the research for that piece actually made me kind of curious to see Helsinki for myself! 🙂

  3. W. Krawec says:

    What a difference real discount airlines make.

    Manchester to Bilbao return (695 mi. each way) (with 1 piece of luggage added in) on EasyJet – C$123.

    Saskatoon to Winnipeg return (440 mi. each way) on WestJet (with 1 piece of luggage included) – C$371.

    On EasyJet-type fares, people can afford to go places on a lark. With Canadian fares, only a small segment of the population can contemplate little weekend trips like that with any regularity. That will end up hindering the CMHR from reaching its attendance potential through no fault of its own.

    That said, I’m not sure that the CMHR should be judged on whether or not it recreates the Bilbao effect here. It should stand its own merits as a museum as opposed to whether it becomes a money-spinning machine for local hoteliers and restaurateurs.

  4. cherenkov says:

    Yikes! The Sheffield example does not make me optimistic. I hope the content of the CMHR blows people away, but the controversial nature of the subject matter is bound to produce some negative reviews.

    @Walt: The projected attendance figures of the CMHR were a big part of the justification for building it. Those figures presumed there would be many visitors from outside MB. If that doesn’t come to pass, we can’t just shrug it off.

  5. bawa says:

    What a lot of people don’t take into account is that The Bilbao Effect is not just the museum, but the complete transformation of the entire city, with public-private partnerships primarily to increase the quality of life of its own citizens in every way, including public transport, university facilities, etc. That was fundamental to its success

    The amazing gastronomic scene, bars, beautiful coast already existed before the Guggenheim was built. The numbers of tourists coming, not only for the museum, but to try out the local food etc. just amazing. And these are for the locals, the tourists just happen to pop-in….

    Just the museum on its own wouldn’t have done it.

    A note: Spain as a whole may be “warm & sunny” but the North of Spain is definitely not in that category. Wet and grey is what it is famous for. But does not seem to keep the visitors away, fortunately.
    Parts of the city are still undergoing that regeneration.

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