Page last updated at 12:03 GMT, Monday, 27 April 2009 13:03 UK

Spain plans to build casino city

By Danny Wood
Madrid reporter, BBC News

The parliament in the Spanish region of Aragon is due to approve a law that would allow the biggest entertainment and leisure complex in Europe to go ahead.

Proposed Gran Scala hotel
The plans include an Egyptian-themed hotel

The Gran Scala project proposes building casino-hotels, theme parks and a racecourse in countryside near the village of Ontinena.

The thirteenth century Church of Saint Mary sits on a hill in the centre of Ontinena, like a beacon for moral guidance.

Many Roman Catholics would associate casinos with deadly sins, so the response of Father Lorenzo, the 80-year-old, bespectacled priest, to plans to build a city of casinos and theme parks next to his village, is surprising.

"In general I think it's a good idea," he says.

"I suppose it could bring economic development. But moral development, that depends on the individual."

Desert climate

The plans by a company called International Leisure Development (ILD) to build Spain's answer to Las Vegas in countryside near Ontinena are strongly supported by the locals.

One survey found that more than 80% of the people who live in the region favour the scheme that would see more than 30 casino hotels, a convention centre, theme parks, golf courses, a racecourse and a dog track, constructed on an area of countryside the size of 1,500 football pitches.

Jaime Riera, ILD Spokesperson
I think we have everything to make the cocktail wonderful
Jaime Riera, ILD spokesperson

Ontinena, in the Spanish region of Aragon, is about two hours drive from Barcelona and has a population of 600.

It is bordered by the Monegros Desert and farmland dedicated to cereal crops.

As he gestures across the countryside where he hopes this leisure city will rise, Jaime Riera, an ILD spokesperson, says the owners of the land are willing to sell and that finding the estimated $20bn (£14bn) to fund the scheme, even in the economic crisis, is no problem.

"We have never had problems regarding financing," he says.

"I am so confident because you can have the land, you can have the institutional support and you can have the money, but in this case I think we have everything to make the cocktail wonderful."

'Spain's future'

He also has the confidence of the Mayor of Ontinena, Angel Torres, who does not see the irony when commenting on the beauty of the countryside, much of which will be covered in cement if the leisure city plans go ahead.

Ontinena
Most of the locals approve of the plans

The mayor has dozens of CVs sent in by people who hope to be employed if this casino city starts construction later this year.

"It's a great project and it represents the future of Ontinena, the region and all Spain, so the town council is strongly behind it to make sure it happens as quickly as possible," says Mr Torres.

ILD estimates that 200,000 people will be employed directly or indirectly by its leisure city.

The socialist regional government of Aragon also supports the project and is backing a law to approve the project, which is expected to be passed by the end of June with the support of the opposition conservatives.

The government says the law would enforce all the necessary legal guarantees and environmental controls on the scheme.

There is some opposition to the Gran Scala scheme. News reports suggest Spain's ombudsman is looking into the scheme after complaints from Stop Gran Scala, a collection of community organisations who say environmental impact studies have been insufficient.

If the Leisure City goes ahead it will be sitting alongside the Monegros Desert, a region that suffers chronic drought.

But ILD says its casino city will be a model for sustainable development and claims there is plenty of water.

Saving water

An hour away from Ontinena, in the middle of another parched Spanish plain, lies the city of Zaragoza.

Card-players in Ontinena
These card players could be getting new surroundings for their game

Last year, the city hosted the World Water Expo that was all about conserving water resources and promoting sustainable development. It is unlikely a casino city like Gran Scala is what they had in mind as a model.

But if you walk around Ontinena, you will find many houses in ruins. The population of the village was 2,000 a century ago; now it is only 600.

Spain's unemployment rate is the highest in Europe and this isolated region in particular is badly in need of investment and jobs. Many people see the proposed leisure city as their best hope for a brighter future.

In Ontinena's local bar, the elderly men of the village often pass the time playing cards.

In these humble, smoky surroundings, it is difficult, but not impossible, to imagine them playing their game in the halls of one of Gran Scala's hotel-casinos.



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