Spain: Eurovegas won’t hit the jackpot
21 September 2012
In 2016, a “European Las Vegas” should open outside Madrid. In response, Catalonia is launching Barcelona World, a super-park attraction. In Europe, however, these entertainment venues imported from America rarely live up to their economic promises.
Theme parks in Spain are largely a story of lay-offs, suspended payments, critical blasts from urban planners, major investments with write-downs stretching far into the future, sudden lurches, and continuous changes in management. And they’re often stories too of failed political adventures set out upon by autonomous governments, either directly or through savings banks. And Port Aventura (Tarragona), thanks to a rescue in 2004 with the entry of the La Caixa banking group, which restructured the business in 2009, doesn’t exactly have a lot to boast about.
Despite the failures in both Spain and Europe, the response of the Catalan Generalitat to U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s choice of Madrid to host the Eurovegas mega-gaming resort has been to endorse the project to build not one but six theme parks at a stroke in the towns of Vila-Seca and Salou, linking them up with the existing Port Aventura. The project is being promoted by La Caixa and the Brazilian group Veremonte, owned by Valencian businessman Enrique Banuelos, one of the leading figures in Spain’s construction boom.
The supercomplex is to be called Barcelona World, and its promoters claim it will generate 20,000 jobs (double the number of indirect jobs), cost 4.7 billion euros to build, and pull in ten million tourists a year. The European benchmark is Disneyland Paris, which gets about 15 million visitors annually.
“The announcement is a temper tantrum, a project without any content, unrealistic and unwise,” explains José Miguel Iribas, a sociologist specialised in territorial, urban and tourist studies. “The theme parks in Spain have had deplorable results, and in Europe too. Disneyland Paris has been a failure,” he says. “In the entire continent, only two small theme parks that are highly specialised are working at all well,” stresses Luis María Huete, IESE Business School professor and author of the first study to be carried out on Port Aventura.
Theme parks substituted for cities in America
One of these is Holland’s “unpretentious and very family-oriented” Efteling, dedicated to elves and fairy tales, which gets about 1.5 million visitors a year. The other is Germany’s Europa Park, bigger, visited by some four million people annually.
With exceptions like those two, the theme park “is a model that, per se, does not work in Europe,” Huete insists. It dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, when choices for entertainment had nothing in common with the choices available today.
The model was developed in the United States, where it let people escape the boredom of the suburbs, where leisure options were limited in practice to shopping malls, and the environment the theme parks offered was friendly and safe for families. There was a belief that mechanically extrapolating this model of tourist pursuits and ways of spending leisure time would be just as valid in Europe as it was in the US, says Iribas. “But it hasn’t worked out like that.”
One fundamental reason, the sociologist holds, reveals why the amusement park model failed to catch on in European countries. “The theme parks substituted for the cities in America,” Iribas argues. “If Europe has any strength, it lies in its network of cities. The appeal of Mickey Mouse,” he adds, to illustrate this argument, “is very limited when any neighbourhood of Paris is just around the corner.”
Theme parks, and similar models such as a cruise or a stay in an all-inclusive resort – Las Vegas would be a variant tied up with gambling – offer only a limited range of things to do. Urban leisure, in contrast, is much more open. In cities, “free time crops up spontaneously, and what can be enjoyed is far more unrestricted,” says Iribas. “The great European tradition is open cities.”
Intensity and diversity of a city cannot be reproduced
With their shops, their bars and cathedrals, the city “shapes what it offers as a function of the demand for it…. The intensity and diversity of a city cannot be reproduced or manufactured. Or, if it is,” adds this specialist in urban planning and tourism, “then only at a very high cost.”
The failure of the theme parks, however, cannot be explained solely by the conviction that the patterns of European leisure would fit the template of American-style entertainment. “In Orlando, the Disney, Sea World and Universal Studios theme parks practically have the same visitors every day, and there are hardly any significant variations,” explains Juan José de Torres, former director of Warner Park (Madrid) and Terra Mitica (Benidorm), two of the biggest themed resorts in Spain.
In Spain, though, things are different. “One day you can have 30,000 visitors and the next day only 500,” he says. “It isn’t easy to adapt to these flows without cutting back on the services offered to the point that it starts to seem like just another park.” As well, some of these centres, like Terra Mitica, were just too big and sprawling.
“It would be a crude mistake to insist on the classical model of theme park”, says Huete, and he expounds on the idea at length. “My guess is that it will be dispensed with and other attractions emphasized, like the hotels, restaurants, casinos, night-life spots. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if the project does finally go ahead, and I’m not at all sure that it will. Neither Barcelona World nor Euro-Vegas”. Time will tell.
Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer