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From satellite museums and world EXPOs to offshoots of state-of-the-art festivals and pop-up restaurants, there are a variety of ways cities around the world are seeking to attract more visitors. However, not all of these visitor attractions have the same impact on a city’s fortunes. Each location has different strengths and is unique in what it can and aims to achieve. Moreover, national tourism boards ought to be aware of the trade-off between making a fast buck vs fostering local culture through a long-term perspective.
Visitor numbers to art, culture and heritage sites across all regions of the world are seeing rather flat growth, with annual growth rates hovering around the 2% mark on average over 2015-2020 with the exception of the Middle East and Africa and Asia Pacific. The Tate Modern in London has demonstrated that remaining innovative can stimulate growth as the art museum was able to attract nearly 24% more visitors over 2015/2016 as a result of its newly built extension and viewing platform. This while museums overall in the UK experienced a decline in numbers of roughly 3%.
That said, city planners are increasingly looking at more transient forms of cultural attractions to boost tourist arrivals. Let’s discuss three here: The Guggenheim in Bilbao; NOMA’s pop-up restaurants; and Austin’s SXSW festival.
Ever since the success story of bringing New York’s Guggenheim art museum to Bilbao, many other international cities lacking major cultural centres, or struggling with inner-city blight, have been longing for the so-called ‘Bilbao effect’, the notion that opening a franchise of a world-class cultural institution will put a city on the map, attract more tourists and subsequently stimulate the local economy.
In the case of Bilbao’s Guggenheim, almost four million tourists visited the museum during the first three years after its inauguration in 1997, which had an impact of about EUR500 million on Bilbao’s economy. Importing the Guggenheim certainly proved to be a gold mine for the northern Basque city.
Another innovative project is the two-Michelin-star restaurant NOMA, run by chef René Redzepi, in Copenhagen. The restaurant’s fame stems from its reinvention and interpretation of local cuisine. This has been key to the success of its pop-up restaurants in Tokyo, Sydney and, most recently, Tulum, Mexico, where USD600 dinner tickets sold out in two minutes. Unlike other first-class restaurants, NOMA challenges the “restaurant” concept as it transforms into a stand-alone tourist destination in the places where it ‘pops up’.
Australia Tourism’s collaboration with the NOMA team is a successful example of how a pop-up restaurant can be used effectively. Bringing NOMA to Sydney was an integral part of Tourism Australia’s ‘Restaurant Australia’ campaign launched in May 2014, which saw spending by overseas visitors on food and wine in the country grow by nearlyAUD700 million in 2015 (up 17% on 2014). Educational visits and great efforts to promote local cuisine alongside the NOMA project, highlighting Australia’s culinary wealth, have substantially improved global perceptions of the country as a food and wine destination.
Another world-class event attracting visitors from all over the globe is South by South West (SXSW). Founded in 1987 in Austin, Texas, SXSW is best known for its conference and festivals that celebrate the confluence of the interactive, film, and music industries. Ever since its inception, the festival’s impact on Austin’s economy has been paramount when taking into account the millions of dollars in taxes it has produced for the city and the gains for the entertainment venues, hotels and retail sector. In 2016, a USD325 million economic impact was assessed, a 2.5% increase on 2015.
Following its success in Austin, SXSW organizers created other music festivals throughout the US and Canada, including West by Southwest (WXSW) in Tucson, Arizona. Many other festivals around the world have been inspired by SXSW, including The Great Escape Festival hosted annually in Brighton, UK.
The juxtaposition of satellite art institutions, pop-up restaurants and festival offshoots demonstrates that each can enjoy great success. However, are these “one size fits all” concepts, which can be used in any city in the world, able to boost tourism arrivals?
One of the cities craving the ‘Bilbao effect’ is Abu Dhabi, in an attempt to diversify its economy, faced with a future without oil. The city is currently building a new museum complex, Saadiyat Island, featuring not only another Guggenheim, but also Louvre Abu Dhabi, with support from major French art institutions. However, in the Arab world, opposition has been raised regarding the idea of‘importing culture’ and the consequencesof turning to a former colonial power foradvice in building cultural institutions.
Is a modern art museum like the Guggenheim really the way forward in a place where there is cultural wealth, like Abu Dhabi, or alternatively in locations whose strengths lie in historic sights, nature or food, rather than static museums? Although an autonomous museum, questions will be asked whether Louvre Abu Dhabi can offer a truly local and authentic experience, and can keep momentum going in the long run. Are visitors expecting local culture in Louvre Abu Dhabi, or instead a copy of its French namesake? And if the Guggenheim was built all around the world, would it maintain its momentum and popularity?
Considering NOMA’s success story, does this mean pop-up restaurants are the way forward to attract more visitors? Again, not every pop-up restaurant can assert the same impact in a city. What makes NOMA successful is that it dives into a country’s local culture and is unique in each setting, enabling local ownership rather than ‘colonising’ a space.
Similar to NOMA, SXSW has doubtlessly had a great impact on Austin’s economy ever since its inception. However, other cities replicating the festival have not been able to experience an equally powerful impact. SXSW is unique to Austin as it was established through bottom-up processes, in an attempt to strengthen the local community and music.
As visitors seek out increasingly unique and authentic experiences, it is all the more important to celebrate the local place and people, whilst staying innovative. City planners and tourism boards should think about where the strength of their city lies, and whether it makes sense to import attractions from elsewhere, being aware of the trade-off between quickly generating income vs a longer-term authentic image.