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Are we Bilbao... or Sheffield?

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From the beginning, there have been hopes the Canadian Museum for Human Rights would pay for itself by creating a Bilbao effect in the city, a phenomenon named after the working-class Spanish city that suddenly became a major tourist destination after the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum opened to the public in 1997.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/08/2011 (4178 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

From the beginning, there have been hopes the Canadian Museum for Human Rights would pay for itself by creating a Bilbao effect in the city, a phenomenon named after the working-class Spanish city that suddenly became a major tourist destination after the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum opened to the public in 1997.

A 2007 report noted 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, where the museum estimates more than 250,000 people will pass through its doors each year? 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 400,000 visitors per year would walk in off the street. That might have seemed like a reasonable estimate at the time, with five million people living within a 100-kilometre radius of Sheffield.

It soon became obvious 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.”

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 965 kilometres each way — for $200 to $300, 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 that sought to understand why relatively few Europeans travel to Finland.

The research found Finland suffered from a reputation of 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.

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, which will be important for the museum because of Manitoba’s reliance on internal tourism.

In 2008, 83 per cent of all tourists in Manitoba were fellow Manitobans, according to Travel Manitoba. Ten per cent were from other parts of Canada, six per cent were from the United States and one per cent were from other countries.

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. A week-long holiday also 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 per cent of tourists in Manitoba due to Winnipeg’s distance from the country’s main international gateways in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

If the CMHR 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.

 

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History

Updated on Sunday, August 21, 2011 11:33 AM CDT: Changed phenomena to phenomenon

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