Splash out then watch the crash

Slew of reports on the ruinous finances of Valencia region puts officials on the defensive Tarnished reputation causes concern for tourism sector

Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, which for many has become an emblem of the wasteful public spending in the region.
Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, which for many has become an emblem of the wasteful public spending in the region. JOSÉ JORDÁN

By the time the German network SAT 1 airs its television report on the Valencian region this week, an international audience of over 150 million spectators will know all about the ballooning costs of Valencia’s cultural complex City of Arts and Sciences. They will also be familiar with the case of Castellón airport, which has never seen a single plane.

A group of journalists calling themselves Xarxa Urbana, creators of the ironically named Ruta del Despilfarro (The Wastefulness Tour), spent eight months helping foreign TV stations like NHK (Japan), Al Jazeera, France 2, DR (Denmark) and the BBC discover the side of a region that “embodies all that’s wrong with Spain,” as Reuters put it last September.

The Valencia brand, once a powerful magnet for investment, is in a nosedive. If a decade ago the Mediterranean region lured foreign money with an image of modernity founded on the designs of star architect Santiago Calatrava and on major sports events including the Americas Cup and Formula 1, Valencia is now being presented abroad as a textbook example of a debt-ridden economy dragged down by real estate madness and squandering of public money. The link between Valencia and its City of Arts and Sciences, mirroring Bilbao and the Guggenheim, has become a burden now that the complex’s financial troubles have come to the fore. Calatrava’s landmark work has been racking up the bad news — from its high construction cost (1.28 billion euros compared with 120 million for the Basque museum) to the architect’s recent decision to take his fortune to Switzerland.

“Now we’re definitely on the map,” says José Miguel Iribas, a sociologist specializing in urban strategies, who considers the bad image projected by the foreign media as “fair.”

“Prosperous northern European countries invest in innovation, not in Formula 1,” Iribas says, adding that the City of Arts and Sciences is an “empty box” and a metaphor for the whole Valencian problem. “It was introduced as an icon for the city, and it has become a fetish because of the Ágora [a part of the complex], which is useless and very expensive. How could they not criticize us?”

But the regional government claims that the image of Valencia offered in foreign documentaries is unreal. When BBC2 aired The Great Spanish Crash on December 16 in prime time, holding the region up as an example of the country’s downfall, the Valencian department of finance accused the British public broadcaster of focusing solely on negative aspects and “opinions.” “UK tourists are familiar with the region and they will not allow themselves to be swayed by the report,” said a spokesperson at the department headed by Máximo Buch, the only Popular Party leader that agreed to talk to the BBC (Economy Minister Luis de Guindos and former Prime Minister José María Aznar turned down interview requests).

The Valencian government does not expect the BBC documentary to reduce the number of British tourists in the region; there were two million of them last year to November, representing 40 percent of all foreign arrivals. In fact, there will be no additional tourism drives to attract Britons to the area. A spokesman said the best strategy is “to do nothing” and let the media storm pass.

Antoni Mayor, president of the Hotel Business Association of Benidorm and Costa Blanca (Hosbec), says he is actually happy with the BBC story. “Benidorm comes out looking well, if not so much the region as a whole, which is linked to corruption and waste,” he says, in reference to the beginning of the documentary, in which several British holidaymakers state that Benidorm is their favorite vacation spot and call it an improved version of Blackpool.

Of course, the world wide web is the worst enemy of a bad reputation. The Great Spanish Crash is referenced 745,000 times on Google and it has been watched by 700,000 internet users. The version with Spanish subtitles, uploaded six days after the original broadcast, had over 325,000 visits on Friday. “It will be very difficult for the Valencian region to improve its image online, explains César Calderón, a consultant and director of the Pensamiento Público foundation. “It will take something more than a marketing strategy to achieve it.”

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