£7m ticket scam threatens to sink Alhambra

Up to 800,000 fake passes handed out as entry system descends into anarchy

The fabulous Alhambra fortress in Granada, jewel of Islamic architecture in Europe, has been swindled out of millions of euros by a ticket scam, allegedly hatched by its doorkeepers, travel agencies, a tour guide and a branch of a major bank.

Spain's most spectacular tourist landmark was almost brought to its knees by an €8m (£7m) fraud, criminal investigators reported at the weekend. Up to 50 people are implicated in the scam, which involved 800,000 faked or unauthorised entry tickets doled out over three years in a process described by investigators as "anarchic and uncontrollable".

The Alhambra, the medieval symbol of Muslim rule in Spain with its breathtaking beauty and spectacular hilltop setting, has attracted visitors for centuries. The American writer Washington Irving lived within its ruins to write Tales of the Alhambra in 1829. Bill Clinton visited in 1997 to share with Hillary and Chelsea what he remembered from his student days as "the world's most beautiful sunset". And Salman Rushdie's epic novel The Moor's Last Sigh, ends with a paean to "the glory of the Moors, their triumphant masterpiece ... Europe's Red Fort".

An estimated three million people visit the Alhambra every year. But not all receipts were finding their way into its coffers. The fraud has reportedly plunged the institution into a crisis bordering bankruptcy.

Members of the Alhambra's staff, a senior guide and the BBVA bank are accused of selling tickets to unauthorised travel agents, or dishing them out indiscriminately. As a result, ordinary visitors who had reserved supposedly time-and-date restricted tickets months ahead found the Alhambra's filigree-arched chambers, its pleasure courts and water gardens crammed with tourists whose numbers far exceeded the permitted maximum.

A report ordered by Granada's court in 2006 – after the ticket office supervisor told governors he suspected something was amiss – estimated that between 2002 and 2005 tens of thousands of people gained irregular access to the Alhambra. Doorkeepers apparently let people in at random, "without tickets, with used tickets, with tickets for times different from that marked, even on days different from that stated on the ticket," investigators found.