Spain's Solution To Massive Debt Crisis: Over-The-Top Theme Parks

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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A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]


Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.



• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.



Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.


The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️


€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.


Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️


"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.


Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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