Europe’s largest casino complex, second in the world behind Las Vegas, is to be built in one of the driest regions of Spain, with the project’s investors saying they hope to attract 25 million visitors a year.
Gran Scala will eventually contain 32 casinos, 70 hotels, 232 restaurants and 500 shops, alongside replicas of Egyptian pyramids and Roman temples. There will even be a copy of the Pentagon – which will serve as a hotel in Spyland, a theme park dedicated to all things 007. And, because this is Spain, there will be a bullring.
The complex will be built on 2,000 hectares (4,943 acres) of steppe in Los Monegros, Aragón. Developers say it will open by 2015. The British-based consortium, International Leisure Development (ILD), settled on east Spain after plans to build in Dubai and France fell through. Millions of euros are being spent on nearby Zaragoza, improving its transport connections in time for next year’s World Expo, making it the ideal location, according to ILD.
The regional government gave the go-ahead to the €17bn (£12.1bn) Gran Scala, arguing that the site is desert, where nothing grows, and that it is ripe for construction.
But Greenpeace disagrees. It accuses the Aragón government of dishonesty in the way it has presented the project, arguing that the land is a rich nature reserve that should be protected, not built upon.
"Los Monegros is a place of great natural biodiversity, with a huge range of species from Africa and Asia that have been very well conserved over the last five million years," said Julio Barea of Greenpeace. "In the last five years alone, 200 new species have been discovered there.
"In any other country, it would be a national park, strictly protected. What the politicians in Aragón are doing is shameful – telling voters that there is nothing there worth protecting, when it is in fact a zone rich in animal and plant life."
The comparison with Las Vegas is more apt than the developers realise, said Barea. The demands of the casinos, hotels and houses in Las Vegas are causing the Colorado river to run dry. "Over here, in one of the driest regions of Spain, where will we get all the water to supply Gran Scala?"
ILD and the local government deny the complex will cause environmental damage. At the launch of the project in Zaragoza this week, the vice-president of the region, José Angel Biel, said: "This is a very important day for Aragón. Gran Scala is a great hope … We couldn’t let the opportunity pass."
It believes that the projected 25 million visitors a year, 80% of whom are expected to come from outside Spain, will bring in €600m in taxes annually for the region.
Central government could also receive around €1bn in tax a year thanks to a relaxing of gambling regulations this year.
Zaragoza airport is a hub in the low-cost air network, and only two-hours’ flight from Stansted airport, north of London. ILD hopes to attract millions of Britons each year, particularly as the prime minister, Gordon Brown, has put plans for a super-casino in Manchester on hold.
But many believe the projected number of visitors for Gran Scala is wildly exaggerated, representing half of the total number of people who visit Spain each year. In Aragón, the leftwing party Izquierda Unida (IU) is leading the opposition to the casino complex, worried not just by the potential environmental damage but also the glorification of mass consumerism and Las Vegas-style gambling.
"I do not understand what is happening," said Adolfo Barrena, the general coordinator of IU in Aragón. "We appear to be the spoilsports but we believe this plan is a disaster."
ILD is unable to give the exact location of Gran Scala as the land has yet to be bought.