Mayor Iñaki Azkuna has used the high profile of the Guggenheim Museum, designed by the architect Frank Gehry, to rebuild the city. The Bilbao Guggenheim has become as iconic as the Sydney Opera House.

Iñaki Azkuna, Mayor of Bilbao in the Basque Country, has been awarded the 2012 World Mayor Prize.

It has been said that Bilbao’s transformation from a declining industrial city in Spain’s northern Basque Province to an international centre for tourism and the arts has been sparked by two events: the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 and the election of Iñaki Azkuna as mayor two years later.

When in the early 1990s Bilbao decided to spend almost US$230m of public money on a museum for modern art, many doubters accused the city of squandering precious resources. But developments since then have silenced the critics. Annual visitor numbers to the city increased from 100,000 before the museum’s opening to more than 700,000 in 2011. The Guggenheim is estimated to have contributed some €2.4 billion (US$3.1bn) to the Basque Province’s GDP since October 1997.

Unlike most cities in Spain and Europe, Bilbao is virtually debt-free. During the years of prosperity in the early part of this century, the city, under the administration of Iñaki Azkuna, steadily reduced its debt until it was paid off in 2011. The city will now only incur new debt for projects that will strengthen the future of Bilbao.