It's Valencia's turn to be in the spotlight

Crowds flock to a beach in Valencia. Spain's third-largest city will have it's time in the spotlight when it hosts the 32nd America's Cup.
Crowds flock to a beach in Valencia. Spain's third-largest city will have it's time in the spotlight when it hosts the 32nd America's Cup.Ramon Espinosa / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

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

Spain's third-largest city has ascended travelers' must-visit list since America's Cup winner Alinghi — from landlocked Switzerland — picked it to host the 32nd America's Cup.

But the America's Cup is only one part of an aggressive urban transformation plan set off 19 years ago to return the city's architectural heritage to its citizens.

"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.

The latest statistics show Valencia 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 airlines, the advent of the Internet, a mushrooming of hotels, conference halls, and museum and art galleries are why Valencia is expected to dwarf the 2 million visitor mark in 2007 — which will make it third only to Madrid and Barcelona.

View of the America's Cup port in Valencia, 03 April 2007. America's Cup holders Alinghi will get a chance to size up the 11 would-be challengers in the final preliminary heat for sport's oldest prize held here this week. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)Philippe Desmazes / AFP

Tourist arrivals will include a million people expected here for the America's Cup. But to many, the futuristic 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, which is an opera house that looks a little like a floating gladiator helmet.

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

Call it the Bilbao effect.

"Calatrava's designs have given a new image to the city," Salinas said. "But there has been a much more direct effect between Bilbao and the museum. In Valencia, there are a lot more attractions, a more complete product."

The 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 70-meter high public square to be completed in 2008. "Agora" will be dwarfed only by the neighboring "Three Towers," three skyscrapers ranging from 220 to 301 meters, 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 has sped up the planned renovation of the port. With the cup returning to Europe for the first time in 156 years, the growing interest coincides with a friendlier format, with organizers shortening the races and putting fans closer to the sailing than ever thanks to Valencia's deep shoreline. With a museum, cafes and restaurants, and team bases to tour, the America's Cup has opened up more than ever as it looks to shed its title as an elitist event for the yachting crowd in places like 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."

Consorcio 2007 — a partnership between the mayor's office, the regional and national governments and private firms — has spent $680 million on infrastructure surrounding the marina, which includes Port America's Cup, the docklands and some of the city's oldest neighborhoods. And it's only a fragment of the $2.65 billion spent since works initially began in 2003.

Architectural firms GHT and Jean Nouvel will reshape the immediate area surrounding Port America's Cup once the event is over, with the Turia Gardens extended to the sea, clearing out old industrial lands, parts of "la huerta" (crop-growing hamlets) and a section of the Grau neighborhood to make way for high-rise apartment blocks and green spaces.

Lying 500 meters (yards) from the port is Cabanyal, a once-proud fishing village that is the oldest neighborhood after the historic city center, a working-class "pueblo" of marina homes showing the signs of age, with many of the mosaic-covered buildings overtaken by squatting gypsies.

If the six-lane Avenue Blasco Ibanez is extended to the beach as planned, it will run directly through here, taking out 10 city blocks with it.

Even though the America's Cup is expected to generate $4.9 billion in revenue while creating 40,770 jobs for the region over the next eight years, not everyone is happy about the changes in Valencia. "To build (America's Cup) infrastructure, we've destroyed heritage. We're losing our identity in exchange for tourism," said 43-year-old firefighter Juanjo Martinez, out watching the yachts from Port America's Cup.

"Building attractions like the Science and Arts complex — which is a cultural attraction — will bring many tourists and is a different thing. But building the infrastructure for the America's Cup is only for a certain few people. After it leaves, who will this area serve?"

Salinas, the tourism director, believes the investment will pay for itself.

"We don't look at the Cabanyal project as a way of attracting tourists. It's thought of in a way of what's best for the city. It is a side-effect of change that will be good for city sense and its citizens," he said.

Then there are the costs.

"The America's Cup? It's great. I get to work longer hours for less money than before," 62-year-old taxi driver Jose Gutierrez said. "Valencia is Spain's most beautiful city. But it comes at a cost and I'm paying out so it can look like it does today."

More neighborhoods and a new soccer stadium will come, maybe even a Formula One racetrack. A recent newspaper editorial signaled Valencians are tired of change — and just want tourists to accept them for who they are.

"Cities are not theme parks that have to compete to see who offers the most novel attraction. While (London, Paris, Rome) knew to conserve their identity — here it has been lost forever."