The historical Basel flourished due to its ideal location on the Upper Rhine, the river connecting Switzerland to the North Sea. Working in Basel's port area was an excellent opportunity for merchants, as well as owners of river barges. After the Industrial Revolution came along, large areas of Basel turned into a factory town with plenty of manufacturing companies.
Today, Basel's economy still owes a considerable part of its prosperity to these two fields. Logistics remains an important sector in the city. Also, Basel is best known as a major location for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. The life sciences employ a great number of people working in Basel, including many expats.
The city of Basel is a characteristic example of the Swiss economy in general, with both its positive and some negative aspects. It is a modern market economy with low unemployment figures and well-qualified job candidates. Agriculture plays a rather minor role, while the economy rests on a high-tech, knowledge-based manufacturing sector and a booming service industry.
However, the strong local currency, the country's export orientation, and its close links to the Euro zone pose a certain risk at the moment. While Switzerland's economy is not in danger of entering a recession, there was only modest growth of the national GDP in the first quarter of 2015 (a small1.1%). Unfortunately, this development affects Basel as well. Nonetheless, the area has a fairly diversified economy. Expatriates interested in working in Basel outside a foreign assignment may very well land a job in one of the key economic sectors.
As mentioned above, the life sciences are the essential industry for Basel. The Basel area forms the center of a larger cluster, the "Bio Valley", which stretches from the canton of Basel-Landschaft to the city of Strasbourg. Within the life sciences sector, the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries are the biggest players.
Basel houses the HQ of global companies like Novartis or Roche, which are household names in the business. Roche, for instance, employs about 10,000 people in Switzerland, many of them in Basel’s metropolitan area. Even the skin-care products you use during your daily bathroom rituals may have their origin in the labs of specialists working in Basel. Beiersdorf produces such brands as Nivea or Eucerin, while Weleda is famous for its organic cosmetics line.
The life sciences also include industries like agribusiness and medical technology. Products as diverse as pesticides, seedlings, Cochlear implants for the hearing-impaired, and dental equipment all belong to the wide range of companies based in Basel. The sector doesn't consist solely of big business: Basel's life science cluster represents small and medium enterprises, as well as start-up companies.
Beyond the life sciences, Basel is home to other innovative industries. It features a number of ICT enterprises, both smaller, local companies and the Swiss branches of multi-nationals like Adobe Systems.
In addition to information and communication technologies, microtechnology, clean tech for the development of environmentally friendly, energy-efficient production methods, and nanotechnology play a significant role in Basel's high-tech market. They often profit from Basel's reputation as a university town. For example, the University of Basel founded the Swiss Nanoscience Institute as a base for application-oriented research.
As far as the tertiary sector is concerned, the transport and shipping industry remains a vital segment of the economy in the Greater Basel Area. While the Rhine is no longer the most convenient connection to other European regions, the city's cargo ports handle a large proportion of Switzerland's import and export goods. Furthermore, finance and insurance make a significant contribution to Basel's economy. Although the city's financial sector pales in comparison to Zurich, Basel is among Switzerland's secondary centers for banking and insurance providers, e.g. UBS and Helvetia Versicherungen.
Moreover, Basel benefits from tourism, even though it's not as prominent a travel destination as the likes of Geneva or Lugano. However, since it hosts a variety of trade fairs, e.g. for contemporary art or for jewelry and watch-making, Basel has acquired some importance for business travel.
Lastly, the creative industries add to Basel's economic profile, especially design and architecture. However, it needs pointing out that this is not a lucrative business. A great part of the creative freelancers in Switzerland complain about low incomes and financial struggles. Art and design are a vocation rather than an occupation for the average expat working in Basel.
You can also discover more about the economy in Switzerland with our article on Swiss banking.
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