Fernando Bustamente  /  AP
The America's Cup harbor is illuminated at night in Valencia, Spain, April 1. Spain's third largest city has ascended every travelers must-visit list since America's Cup winner Alinghi, of landlocked Switzerland, picked it to host the 32nd America's Cup.
updated 4/30/2007 7:19:17 PM ET 2007-04-30T23:19:17

Forget Barcelona, Bilbao or Seville. Now it is Valencia's turn to bask in the international spotlight.

Spain's third-largest city has ascended travelers' must-visit lists since defending champion Alinghi - the sailing team from landlocked Switzerland - picked it to host the 32nd America's Cup. But the yachting race series is only one part of an aggressive urban transformation plan for Valencia that began 19 years ago.

"To be here over the last 20 years has been very humbling - it's a big success because the city has totally changed," said Jose Salinas, director of Valencia Tourism since 1991. "Valencia has taken a big leap forward; it is now a more open and cosmopolitan city than it was before and the people - locals and visitors - are embracing it."

Tourists have responded, just as they did with Barcelona following the 1992 Olympic Games and Bilbao after the opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in 1997.

In recent years, Valencia has experienced the biggest jump in tourism of any European city. The 1.6 million visitors who came here in 2006 were nearly five times the number who came in 1992.

Better travel connections, including the rise of low-cost European airlines, the advent of the Internet, expansion in the number of hotels, conference halls, museums and art galleries are why Valencia's tourism numbers are expected to top the 2 million visitor mark in 2007. Among Spanish cities, only Madrid and Barcelona get more tourists.

Tourist arrivals in Valencia this year will include a million people expected for the America's Cup, which begins June 23. But to many, the Palace of the Arts is what put Valencia on the map.

Designed by the superstar architect Santiago Calatrava, who happens to be a native son, the $334 million palace is part of a complex of museums and other attractions called the City of Arts and Sciences. The futuristic white buildings, most of them designed by Calatrava, include a planetarium, an aquarium and the arts palace, an opera house that looks a little like a floating gladiator helmet.

As in Bilbao, Valencia has a Calatrava-designed bridge, a renowned work by British architect Norman Foster (the Conference Center) and a mayor willing to spend to transform the city.

Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences is set within the Turia Gardens, a drained river renovated into a park in the 1990s, and Calatrava's next work will be here also, a 230-foot-tall public square to be completed in 2008. "Agora" will be dwarfed only by the neighboring "Three Towers," three skyscrapers ranging from 720 to 987 feet, with the latter 81-story building to be the tallest in Europe.

Mayor Rita Barbera has overseen the renovation of 64 historic sites in the city at a cost of $241 million during her 16-year tenure. Not since the 15th century has this mercantile city - still known for its UNESCO-protected silk markets - seen such a renaissance.

Barbera and Salinas were responsible for the America's Cup bid in 2003, which sped up the planned renovation of the port, a public harbor with team bases, exhibits, cafes, restaurants, concerts and giant screens broadcasting the race.

With the America's Cup returning to Europe for the first time in 156 years, the growing interest in the event coincides with a friendlier format. Organizers have shortened the races and put fans closer to the sailing than ever before, thanks to Valencia's deep shoreline. The race is trying to shed its reputation as an elitist event for the yachting crowd in places such as Newport, R.I., where it was held for 50-odd years.

"It was a win-win situation. Thanks to the America's Cup we have been able to advance the work behind certain infrastructures," Salinas said. "The exposure from this event - an international event that will hit all across the world - has accelerated the process and provided the city with a platform to improve its tourist image, giving Valencia a certain presence as a unique destination."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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