Bilbao – The Redefinition of Tourism
Bilbao is often presented as an example of cultural regeneration. It is an easy mistake to make, because Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum did transform the way we think about the city. However to simplify the sophisticated and concerted efforts that the City went through to develop Bilbao as the focus for the Basque Countries invigorated economy would be to do its city fathers a great disservice.
Bilbao prospered from its founding in the year 1300 because its sheltered port at the mouth of the Rio del Nervión, offers one of the few safe havens in the Bay of Biscay. Commercial exchange fueled the life blood of the city, and also brought a cultural mixing that has enriched the life of the city. Bilbao was also placed on the map by the influx of pilgrims to the nearby shrine of Santiago de Compostela
With the discovery of the New World it became a commercial focus for trade with South America. Even today Bilbao’s biggest bank, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya under its corporate banner Grupo BBVA, has its HQ in Bilbao. It has 95,000 employees worldwide and branches throughout South America from Argentina to Venezuela, in the USA and Asia.  Its motto is Adelante!
BBVA was instrumental in helping to fund Bilbao’s biggest growth at the end of the 19th Century when the city became the focus for the steel and shipbuilding industry. It is shipping that has formed the backbone of Bilbao, the sea is depicted in city sculptures, fish dominate the cuisine and trade is in the blood. However in 1936 the Spanish Civil War halted this advance. The Basque Country has always been left wing and after Franco’s success Bilbao was marginalised and suffered severe decline.
It was only in 1978, when the Basque Region was declared an autonomous region under Spain’s new constitution, that the region and its proud city were really able to attend to that decline. Today the Basque Government is led by a left wing/communist coalition  and the Bilbao City Region is governed by the Diputacíon . There is also a local city government as well – though this level of administration has less power than in other parts of Spain.
At a seminar at the Centre for Cities at the LSE in London Bilbao’s unique method of governance was put forward as one of the main reasons for its success.
The headquarters of the diputacion
The devolved financial system in Bilbao and Viscaya, which was established as part of the post-Franco transition, has a number of advantages. The city-region is able to capture benefits from its own investment, as additional revenue created through regeneration creates a ‘virtuous circle’ for economic development. The system is accountable, and close to the taxpayer: the same people collect and spend the taxes, and are elected locally. It’s difficult to measure the system’s success directly, but other regions in Spain (e.g. Catalonia) now want similar freedoms.
It is this Diputacíon that has taken the lead on investment, planning, and regeneration. People have commented that the Bilbao City Region is at the right geographic scale to pursue a long-term, strategic perspective and to invest in infrastructure, culture and innovation. Collaboration between municipalities might have been less successful. It is interesting to compare Bilbao’s successful Diputacíon with Montpelier's’s Agglomeration. Both of these administrations allow the city easier expansion and connect it more fully to its hinterland. In both cases new public transport systems which connect the city to its hinterland have been delivered by the administration.
Bilbao's wonderful metro system was designed by Sir Norman Foster.  The hooded entrances, which look a little like a glass armadillo are a discrete indicator of the network below. There is currently 36km of track in two lines. There is a group ticketing system. The most popular ticket is the Creditrans travel-card , that offers discounts when traveling around Bilbao in the Bilbobus and BizkaiBus buses, the tramway and FEVE trains. Enabling people to get about the city cheaply and easily has paid dividends in a number of ways. It has:
• Improved the spread of tourism
• Increased access to jobs
• Opened up areas for redevelopment
A great amount of effort has also been put into education. When I first visited the city in the early 90’s there were posters all over the Metro advertising computer training. The message ws simple – If you want to get a job you need to understand the technology. This was a particularly pertinent point in a city where the unemployed workforce included many middle aged and none too healthy males who had been made redundant by the closure of steelworks and shipbuilding.
The city galleries are alive with soviet style images of the heroic shipyard workforce and the bucolic peasant hinterlander. Tourism and a wider outlook has brought sophistication to Bilbao. The hotels and shops are brimming with a rich, well educated and cosmopolitan clientele. However that earthiness still lurks close to the surface. Bilbao nightlife can be sophisticated, but there still abound small bars and cafes on every street corner where working people go to eat fish and enjoy a beer or cognac.
The physical connection with water and land is still evident in the urban form today. Bilbao sits within a steep river valley. Wherever you are in the city you are aware of the green hillsides often visible at the end of die-straight boulevards. The triumph of Gehry's Guggenheim museum is not so much in the genteel 20th Century art that adorns its neutral interior (There is no Basque art within these walls) but in the strong, soaring,fundamentals of the metal structure which seems to grown from the river and entangle itself with the old suspension bridge which connects the left and right bank of the river. The Guggenheim reflects the earthy reality of the people who inhabit the city, even if these inhabitants never actually bother to see the art within.
The Guggenheim is only part of a bigger story of devolution, branding and investment. Land assets have been leveraged dramatically. As you fly into the city you go over acres of industrial units.
Within the city itself development is everywhere. The city fathers have used high flying international architects. The latest development to be completed, right in the heart of the old city and adjacent to the Calatrava Bridge are the Atea Towers by the Japanese architect Isozaki. These twin towers standing 82m high with 23 floors in each of apartments and offices are faced in glass and natural stone. They form the most dynamic part of five linked buildings, which combines relics of 19th century architecture, landscaped gardens, spots facilities, commercial and housing. Between the buildings a massive staircase leads down towards the water and Calatrava's bridge and provides the setting for the sculptor Chillida’s work Buscando la Luz IV. The development is stylish and expensive.
Bilbao Ria 2000 was set up in 1992. It has played a major role in facilitating land acquisition and development. The Mayor of Bilbao is the President of Bilbao Ria 2000, and the national planning minister is the Vice-President.
Zaha Hadid has recently completed the conceptual masterplan for Zorrozaurre in Bilbao, a 60 hectare area cradled in a long curve of the Nervión River just across from the city’s centre. This former port and industrial area will become home to nearly 15,000 new residents and will provide workshops, labs, studios, and offices for nearly 6,000 working people. When I visited it was a sad and neglected part of town – but home to a series of artists and thinkers, who will no doubt be eased out as the developers ease in. There is a modest opposition. But even the most defiant must realise that the semi- island almost within sight of the Guggenheim has huge development potential.
The neighbourhood of Zorrozaurre
Today greater Bilbao is the Basque Country's main economic area and one of Spain's most important. The metropolitan area concentrates several key industrial sectors: steel, energy production, machine tool, aeronautics industry, electronics and IT. The municipality of Bilbao has been an industrial one for decades, but the heavier industries have been moved from the city center to the periphery and the city has centered its activities in the services sector which accounts for the 75’5% of the city's added value. The GNP per capita is 19,648€ (FY 2000), slightly above the average of the Basque Country and well above the average of Spain. Making the city attractive to tourism is really just a way of attracting business. The International Trade Fair, now Bilbao Exhibition Centre (BEC) hosts many international level exhibitions, specially the Biannual Machine Tool Fair (BIEMH), that help keep dynamic the city's economic life. On top of BEC, Bilbao has the Euskalduna Palace congress center. This lumpy building may be Important economically, but it is one of the city's least successful buildings architecturally.
The port of Bilbao is the most important one in the north of Spain and one of the most important in the Bay of Biscay. In 2005, the port moved 36.8 million tonnes, being the fourth port of Spain after Algeciras, Barcelona and Valencia.
It may well have been tourism which kick started the regeneration of Bilbao, but it has been hard nosed development and economic development that has continued its success. Business people are in effect just another type of tourist. Whether you get good reviews on the travel pages or on the business pages your city is still on the map. What Bilbao has managed to do it to transform an old fashioned engineering based economy into a much more dynamic and mixed economy. Tourism, service industry and hospitality is just a part of the rich mix.
It remains to be seen whether Bilbao’s future will be successful because of its new found sophistication, or because of its fundamental connection with the sea and the rural hinterland. Will the peasant and the seaman or the tourist and the banker hold sway? Or – and this would I think be its making – could the politicians bring together the brain and the brawn to create something rich and new?
See also the Bilbao photo album in the left hand column.