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Outside of Salou, signs that Spain may have an upside-down plan to economic recovery..
Outside of Salou, signs that Spain may have an upside-down plan to economic recovery..
François Musseau

BARCELONA - Barcelona World. The name says it all.

The project is as pretentious as its declared objective: “One of the main investment projects that will transform this region into a tourism industry leader in Europe and in the world.” This is what the Catalan Industry and Labor Minister Francesc Xavier-Mena said of the new site, which will be located near Salou, in the Tarragon province, on the Mediterranean coast.

For the moment, Barcelona World exists only on the drawing board. Four hundred hectares of uncultivated land, where six theme parks will be built by 2016. Each will represent a part of the world: Europe; the U.S; and four emerging countries: China, Brazil, Russia and India. There will be casinos, mega-hotels, offices and restaurants. Barcelona World promoters are banking on a 4.7 billion-euro investment, 20,000 new jobs and about 10 million tourists every year. That’s even more tourists than the city of Barcelona itself. Bulldozers and cranes should be starting their engines next year.

This over-the-top project is quite unexpected, given the country’s dire economic situation. Catalonia faces a 42-billion-euro debt and asked the central government for a 5-billion-euro loan to meet its financial commitments before the end of the year.

The regional government has authorized the project and given all the guarantees for the success of Barcelona World. “This project is a blessing, it breathes new life into the region. We believe in it,” said a government spokesperson.

And yet, it was the construction industry – which carried the Spanish economy during its 15 years of economic growth– that brought the country to its knees in 2008. In Spain, real estate weighs now six times less in the country’s economy than it did in 2007, before the housing bubble burst. “We crashed harder than the others because of the housing and the leisure industry. And here we go again, falling back into old ruts. Haven’t we learned anything?” says Gaspar Llamazares, a member of the national parliament for the United left party.

The Spanish Dream

The mega-project does have a taste of deja-vu. The promoter, Enrique Bañuelos is famous in Spain. During the booming years before the 2008 crisis, the 46-year-old would turn any housing project to gold. He was one of the first in the Valencia region to understand that the law allowed anyone to build on any land without owning it. Bañuelos built luxury hotels, fancy villas, casinos and high-rises right on the coast. The American Dream, Spanish-style.

His incredible rise became an example of the success stories in Spain in the 2000s. He bought himself a palace in Madrid, a castle in Majorca and in 2006, the stock value of his company Astroc was multiplied by 10. But the following year it came tumbling down, bankrupting its stockholders.

Bañuelos left for Brazil, where he made money in the food processing industry, property management, and biofuel, before deciding to come back to Spain. “Bañuelos is returning to a dying Spain with his much-needed funds, while at the same time cleaning up his image with this supposedly wonderful project,” writes a columnist in the daily newspaper, Publico.

With Barcelona World, Catalonia is hoping to beat the current stagnation and offer dreams of job creation, an influx of gambling tourists and a place where families can have fun together. Other regions are following the trend. In June, the first stone for the Paramount Studios Park was laid in Murcia.

In Valencia, a Ferrari park is being discussed and in Alcorcon, a suburb west of Madrid, American billionaire Sheldon Adelson is hoping to build a Las-Vegas-style complex with six casinos, 12 hotels with a total of 36,000 rooms and three golf courses. According to the Spanish media, the project would cost an estimated 16.9 billion euros – a record for Spain – and create nearly 170,000 jobs over the next decade.

In Madrid, authorities have halted infrastructure constructions for lack of cash but are ready to do what it takes to help the American billionaire work his magic and bring his dollars. That includes changing some laws to accommodate Adelson and make his mega-complex a special zone where smoking, minors and anonymous betting will be allowed, where unions will be banned and labor laws not applied.

“This frenzy that is presented as a cure-all hides many loopholes and lies,” says Ana Sanz, an architect opposed to Adelson’s project. “This initiative is unsustainable on arid land. It will use as much electricity as the city of Saragossa and as much water as a city of 70,000 people.” There are also doubts about the project’s profitability. “We will have to see how many jobs are actually created,” says Maria Fernandez, an economist. “Adelson will only fund about 35% of the project. The rest will have to be paid for by our banks, which are already struggling.”

This new trend is even more surprising when you consider Spain’s history with theme parks. Over the past 20 years, Spanish theme parks have been a series of failures. Terra Mitica, created in 2000 in Benidorm, only sees a third of its expected visitors and is facing a 400-million euro debt. The only exception is Port Aventura, near the future Barcelona World site, which made a 12-million-euro profit in 2011.

So why is Spain going down that road again? “It’s the result of near-sightedness,” says Jose Miguel Iribas, a sociologist. “They mechanically extrapolate something that has been successful in the U.S. There, parks replace non-existent cities; here, the urban network is very dense.” Another issue for Spanish parks is the lack of returning customers, who rarely spend the night in the parks’ hotels. “One day you’ll have 30,000 visitors and just 300 the next,” says Jose de Torres, a tourism consultant. He believes Spanish theme parks are too big. “They were built to be at full capacity all day every day, as if there were only Sundays or summer holidays.”

But these doubts don’t seem to be holding back Barcelona World promoters. Artur Mas, the Catalan president is also optimistic and so is one of the leaders of Caixabank, the bank which owns the land where the park will be built. “It will be the best destination in Southern Europe.”

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