ZABRZE, Poland -- It was once the Pittsburgh of Poland, home to Europe’s deepest coal mine, steeped in centuries of tradition. But now that Poland is drifting away from coal in favor of cleaner energy technologies, what do you do if you’re the Guido Coal Mine?
Instead of fully reinventing itself, Guido is showcasing its coal mining history while also branching out into holding wedding receptions and theater performances 320 meters (1,050 feet) below the ground, in what Zabrze leaders are calling industrial tourism.
Guido, in the coal-rich region of Upper Silesia, opened in 1855 and was named after Count Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck, one of the richest men in the area at the time. Coal mining shut down here in 1920 because coal quality declined due to high sulfur content; the coal mine then became experimental. While not the oldest mine in the region, where coal had been the main driver of the economy since the 17th century, Guido is the deepest, the equivalent of an upside-down Eiffel Tower.
“The mining industry [was] present here for at least 300 years,” said Gregory Dziwicz, a tour guide who also served as a translator for Zabrze officials giving their pitch on the city’s industrial tourism plans.
Guido currently attracts 200,000 visitors a year, with a goal of reaching 250,000 by 2015. Tours include accessing the mine via a narrow shaft (claustrophobics are warned) and demonstrations of how miners used to extract coal from Guido decades ago.
To help drive up tourism figures, Zabrze is trying to get Guido recognized as a Unesco World Heritage Site. But that campaign is being waged half-heartedly, according to Igor Cieslicki, Zabrze’s deputy mayor.
“As a promotion, it’s pretty important,” Cieslicki said of the Unesco designation. “But Unesco could impose certain obligations. As far as I’m concerned, it’s good to say we’re still applying for it but it won’t be good if we were successful.” Unesco would make it harder to alter the existing features of the site -- and, said Cieslicki, “We want to leave some things but we also want to propose something to earn money.”
Outside of Guido, Silesia is transitioning from its coal mining roots to other industries. Cieslicki noted that General Motors (NYSE:GM) set up shop near Zabrze and that IBM (NYSE:IBM) plans to open a facility in nearby Katowice, employing 4,000 people.
The hope is that some of those jobs will go to Zabrze’s young people, the descendants of people who relied on the coal mines for work. Cieslicki noted that it would be too late to retrain miners in the area, as most of them retire by the time they’re 45 years old.
“The point is to create new jobs for their children,” he said.