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City of Reinvention

By Nancy McLardie
With a population of just over 600,000, Glasgow has all the buzz and excitement you would expect of one of Europe's liveliest destinations.

From its origins in the 6th century, the city has bounded down through the centuries, reinventing itself several times along the way. And this is what gives Glasgow its distinctive, progressive character.

Described by the author Daniel Defoe in 1723 as "the beautifullest little city in Britain", the environment of which he spoke remains today and contributed to the decision to make Glasgow UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999. A combination of neo-classical spires, glowing sandstone, sensuous Art Nouveau and minimalist glass and titanium enhances almost anything you care to do in this dynamic conurbation.

Glasgow initially grew wealthy on the proceeds of trade in tobacco, cotton a nd sugar with the Americas during the 18th century, but the Declaration of Independence in 1776 put paid to this and the first reinvention from international trading city to centre of engineering excellence took place shortly afterwards.

The River Clyde, which assisted the city's early growth, was dredged in 1770 allowing the establishment of shipbuilding both in Glasgow and further west in Paisley and Port Glasgow. By 1811 Glasgow had become the second city of the British Empire, an engine room that produced the world's great luxury liners. Even today the word 'Clydebuilt' is synonymous with excellence, though many of the shipyards have long since closed.

Glasgow's third reinvention did not properly get underway until the early 1980s. Back then it was identified that the city's future lay in retailing, tourism and commerce and pursuit of that policy means that 86% of the working population in Glasgow are now employed in the service sector.

Glasgow's retailing scene has grown to such a degree that it is second only to London's West End, while tourism now accounts for 28,000 jobs in the city and almost 56,000 across the region of Greater Glasgow & Clyde Valley.

This third reinvention is probably the most fascinating of all and worthy of exploration in a little more depth. Twenty years ago the definition of a tourist in Glasgow was someone who was lost! Yet in 2001 it attracted more than 3 million visitors who generated around £700 million for the local economy.

Glasgow's strategy in this reversal of fortunes was first of all to create a number of events that would make people want to live, work, visit and invest in the city. The first major landmark was the opening of the world famous Burrell Collection in 1983, closely followed by the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988 and most ambitious of all European City of Culture 1990. By the time Glasgow became UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999 a remarkable transformation had taken place. The city's image on the international stage had markedly improved, and, perhaps more importantly, Glaswegians had begun to take pride in their city.

In the 21st century, however, the emphasis has now switched from events to things you can see and do in Glasgow day in day out, 365 days a year. As Eddie Friel, Chief Executive of Greater Glasgow & Clyde Valley Tourist Board, puts it:

"Over the past decade, Glasgow has boosted visitor numbers to the destination through a highly successful events marketing strategy using festivals such as European City of Culture and UK City of Architecture and Design. "More recently our marketing focus has switched to investment in the built environment and riverside regeneration and is a further example of the city's constant ability to reinvent itself."

Ironically, it is the River Clyde, upon which the city turned its back after the decline of shipbuilding, that is the centre of some of the most interesting regeneration schemes. Over the next five years, more than £500 million is to be spent on creating world class facilities along the Clyde that will unite an already impressive cluster of attractions.

The £75 million Glasgow Science Centre, which opened in July 2001, has since attracted more than 650,000 visitors and is joined on the Clyde by the Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre, the Tall Ship at Glasgow Harbour, the Paddle Steamer Waverley and, a little further downstream, Clydebuilt, the Scottish Maritime Museum at Braehead. A relatively recent addition to this critical mass of attractions is the means to see them on one short tour. In typical Glasgow fashion, local entrepreneur, Alex Gilmour, remortgaged his house to establish the Clyde Waterbus in 2001 and it's now a popular means of observing the Clyde's history at close quarters.

City administrators have adopted an equally assertive stance in respect of the jobs market. Glasgow City Council has just appealed to the local enterprise company for £25 million to help address a skills shortage, so that employment can keep pace with development.

Once again tourism provides a useful case study.

Very recently the prestigious Union of International Associations in Brussels confirmed that Glasgow is now Europe's fastest growing conference destination, having doubled it market share since 1997. And this growth has manifested itself in a 27% increase in accommodation supply in the last four years. Locally, the talk is of 11,000 hotel rooms (with a further 2,000 in guest houses, B&Bs and self catering) where there were only 3,000 twenty years ago.

Statistics show that Glasgow is burgeoning, but you only need look to the guidebooks for the best testimonial of all. "Glasgow is the United Kingdom's Hippest and Most Happening City", says the USA's Travel & Leisure magazine, while Fortune voted the city "one of the top three business centres in Europe".

The hip and happening tag is in no small way attributable to more than 800 bars and pubs, 30 night clubs and shopping to rival London's West End, only in a much more compact and walkable space. Restaurants too are in abundance. Chill out with a frappé in Glasgow's bohemian West End, or 'people watch' over an espresso from the pavement cafes in the city centre. Check out the style bars of the Merchant City, or indulge in fresh Scottish produce at one of the city's excellent seafood restaurants.

Glasgow's cultural offering is equally diverse. There are more than 20 museums and galleries, most of which are free to visit, including the world famous Burrell Collection, the Gallery of Modern Art and The Hunterian Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow, where the study of Glasgow's greatest architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, is a speciality.

At night choose from numerous theatres, concert halls and comedy clubs, or, to slow the pace down a notch, head out to the wide open spaces of Loch Lomond or the Clyde Valley.

The beauty of Glasgow, and one that has not been lost on visitors, is ease of access. With direct access from the USA and Europe into city airports and with a motorway running through its heart, the rolling, rural landscapes that Scotland is famous for are never far away.

As for Fortune's comment on doing business? There's a can-do culture that exists in Glasgow which delivers on city promises, whether it's running a year-long festival or managing a four-day conference. As the President of the prestigious American Society of Travel Agents said when asked why his convention chose to meet in Glasgow before any other UK city, "it was because they asked."

That just about sums up the opportunities that present themselves in Scotland's largest city. The sky's the limit.