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Valencia sails into the spotlight

<p>Forget Barcelona, Bilbao or Seville. Now it is Valencia’s turn to bask in the international limelight. Spain’s third-largest city has ascended travellers’ must-visit list since America’s Cup winner Alinghi — the sailing team from landlocked Switzerland — picked it to host the 32nd America’s Cup.<br /></p>

America’s Cup sees Spain’s third-largest city on the rise



fernando bustamente/associated press


Valencia residents pass by an advertisement of the US BMW Oracle Racing team in the America’s Cup harbour in Valencia, Spain. Spain’s third largest city has ascended every travellers must-visit list since it was picked to host the 32nd America’s Cup.





herbert knosowski/associated press


An aerial view of Valencia, Spain, shows the City Of Arts And Sciences with the Palace Of Arts in centre.





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





Spain’s third-largest city has ascended travellers’ must-visit list since America’s Cup winner Alinghi — the sailing team 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 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.





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’s tourism numbers are expected to dwarf the two-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 US$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.





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 70-metre-tall public square to be completed in 2008. “Agora” will be dwarfed only by the neighbouring “Three Towers,” three skyscrapers ranging from 220 to 300 metres, with the latter 81-storey 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. Port America’s Cup is a public harbour facility 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 also gradually shedding its reputation as an elitist event for the yachting crowd in places like Newport, R.I., where it was held for 50-odd years.





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 neighbourhoods. 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 neighbourhood to make way for high-rise apartment blocks and green spaces.





Lying 500 metres from the port is Cabanyal, a once-proud fishing village that is the oldest neighbourhood after the historic city centre, 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.


 
 
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