Bilbao was once a decrepit port city on the north coast of Spain, famous for its decaying industrial complexes and stinking river. But since the Guggenheim landed on its banks in 1997, the city has seen an explosion in tourism, going from sleepy town to a must-see overnight. In a rush to recreate that “Bilbao Effect,” other Spanish cities have built flashy art centers, cultural landmarks, and infrastructure projects funded by taxpayers’ money. But Europe’s financial meltdown, combined with government mismanagement and poor attendance, have caused these grandiose projects to fall behind on their payments, resulting in a $25.5 billion bill and public backlash. So, did these structures cause a tourism boom, or are they just big budget bombs? Let’s find out.
City of Arts and Sciences – Valencia
Rising out of a dried up riverbed is the City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia’s futuristic cultural center. Designed by local architect Santiago Calatrava, this sprawling complex was completed in 2005 with an IMAX theater, planetarium, greenhouse, opera hall, and the largest aquarium in Europe. The original cost ballooned from $368 million to a whopping $1.4 billion thanks to government extravagance and Calatrava’s $114 million bill. Despite this, Valencia saw 5.4 million visitors in 2011, an increase of almost 10 percent over last year’s numbers, with the complex topping out as the city's number one destination among tourists. Open daily throughout the summer, the center’s $40 adult all access pass ($31 for children) should go a small way towards its annual $364,000 upkeep.
City of Culture of Galicia – Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela, in northwest Spain, is a UNECSO World Heritage site thanks to its breathtaking cathedral, medieval buildings, and history as a Catholic pilgrimage destination. To modernize the town, the regional government commissioned the City of Culture of Galicia, a performing arts center with spaces for theaters, museums, and a library. But after spending $491 million and 12 years on construction, only two of its six planned buildings opened in 2011, with no plans to erect the others. Compounding the city’s woes is that only 685,000 tourists visited the region last year, which is a significant drop from the 1.2 million visitors who came in 2005. Thankfully, entrance into the complex is free and it is open daily throughout the summer. Good for you, not so great for Spanish taxpayers.
Castellón Airport – Vilanova d'Alcolea, Benlloch
Need to get to the northeast of Spain? Castellón Airport is awaiting you with open arms and exactly no airlines. Opened in 2011 to the tune of $184 million, its runway has seen zero flights due to a lack of permits for receiving air traffic, and now needs to be renovated because it is too narrow for planes to turn around. While officials had hoped that the airport would bring in tourists, the area is already well served by the southern airports of Valencia and Alicante, and Barcelona to the north. That, however, has not stopped them from building a $368,000 sculpture of the airport's founder out front and spending $37 million on publicity.