Rollercoaster ride as Spanish theme parks plunge to earth

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The Independent Online

Spanish theme parks, trumpeted a few years back as a sophisticated boost to the country's mighty tourist industry, are plunging to earth as the public fail to go along for the rides.

Spanish theme parks, trumpeted a few years back as a sophisticated boost to the country's mighty tourist industry, are plunging to earth as the public fail to go along for the rides.

Touted as a magnet for property and hotel developers in otherwise lacklustre spots, Spain's four flagship parks have fallen short of the over-enthusiastic predictions on which they were founded.

Terra Mitica, the spectacular theme park outside Benidorm based on ancient Greek, Roman, Aztec and Inca civilisations, had to suspend payments last month to avoid bankruptcy with an accumulated debt of €161m (£105m). Visitors last year amounted to barely half the three million predicted.

Isla Magica - a sort of Tintinesque would-be jungle paradise built on the former site of Expo 92 in Seville - also suspended payments to creditors last year.

The Warner Brothers park outside Madrid, built around sub-Disney movie characters, lost €32m last year, and planned infrastructure improvements were savagely pared back. And Port Aventura in Salou near Alicante, with its white-knuckle rollercoaster rides, continues to lose money nine years after it opened.

News of the parks' financial woes comes less than a week after the danger of insolvency meant that Eurodisney in Paris had to agree a deal with its creditors to restructure $2.9bn (£1.6bn) of debts. And this, with ticket sales of 12.4 million last year, is Europe's biggest single tourist attraction.

None of the Spanish ventures is in that league and none has yet made a profit. Terra Mitica, launched in 2000, has been the most expensive failure: it was set up at a total cost of €480m, which included a credit of €111m from the regional government of Valencia and a clutch of regional banks. The park has repaid only €29m, and creditors have refused to put up more funds. As private companies prepare to abandon ship, regional governments are asking whether to risk throwing public funds into a seemingly bottomless pit.

Terra Mitica was designed to relaunch a resort saturated to the point of exhaustion with cheap package holidays, and extend to an otherwise bleak and rocky Mediterranean hinterland the construction of flats, villas and hotels that march relentlessly across Spain's southern coast.

Isla Magica was supposed to revive a marshy site on the margins of Seville stranded after the Expo. And Madrid's Warner Brothers park was a desperate attempt to boost a sluggish regional economy bereft of its former industries on the capital's southern fringes. Port Aventura is the only park that showed buoyancy, but it too faced the brutal reality that there were never enough visitors to cover costs.

Property prices, admittedly, have risen around the parks as part of an ongoing speculative boom that shows little sign of slowing. But new developments have not taken off to nearly the extent promoters expected. The property market around Terra Mitica is no livelier than the rest of the Costa Blanca.

Some blame the failure of theme parks on the overall glut of Spanish leisure activities. "There's just too much supply," says one expert. Spaniards aren't keen on some aspects of theme park life: they don't like queuing, or eating on the hoof. And they prefer zoos, nature parks or aquariums - and, of course, the beach.

Meanwhile, for the legions of overseas tourists who choose Spain for their holidays, theme parks are not exactly the main attraction.