The Bilbao Effect

Formerly noted for steel mills and shipyards, the Basque city is now home to sleek hotels, designer boutiques and the kind of swank restaurants once found only in Madrid or Barcelona. Today, Bilbao attracts tourists from around the globe, 80 percent of whom say they came explicitly for the Guggenheim. Since Frank Gehry's architectural masterpiece was finished, more than 6 million visitors have seen it. And although today's crowds are smaller than in the early days, on a recent Thursday afternoon in July, lines still snaked outside the door. In 2001, the Financial Times estimated that the museum had generated 500 million in economic activity for the region during its first three years, plus 100 million in taxes. Even in 2002 -- the worst year in memory for international tourism -- Guggenheim patrons contributed some 160 million to the local economy. It's called the Bilbao Effect, and civic leaders from Sarasota to Sacramento are hoping it can happen to them. They reason that if top-flight architecture can draw free-spending throngs to the industrialized reaches of northern Spain, maybe it can do the same for other benighted burgs.
Gordon T. Anderson