What is the Hard Rock casino complex? The controversial project stalling the 2024 budget

The leisure facility, blocked for years, has become the key to approving the €43bn accounts

Image of a Hard Rock sign at Punta Cana (courtesy of Hard Rock)
Image of a Hard Rock sign at Punta Cana (courtesy of Hard Rock) / ACN
Catalan News

Catalan News | @catalannews | Barcelona

March 1, 2024 12:40 PM

March 1, 2024 07:05 PM

Earlier this week, the Catalan government led by pro-independence Esquerra and the opposition Socialists approved the 2024 budget for Catalonia, setting it on its parliamentary course, but still lacking enough support to pass it. 

The first vote is scheduled for mid-March, and the next two weeks will be crucial for Esquerra and the Socialists to gather enough support. If the budget passes the first vote, the final vote will be held in early April. The Socialists and Esquerra will need two individual votes in favor or at least four abstentions. 

Their more likely third party is the anti-austerity Comuns, who supported last year's budget. This time, however, the Comuns have drawn a clear red line: the approval of the Hard Rock casino complex

Esquerra is caught between a rock and a hard place: while the Comuns link their support to the rejection of the project, the Socialists base theirs on its approval. But Esquerra insist that this is a technical matter and not a political decision. 

What is the Hard Rock project? 

More than ten years after it was first proposed, the leisure and gaming mega-complex to be built in Vila-seca and Salou, Tarragona, near the PortAventura amusement park, has yet to be realized. 

The original project, called Barcelona World, consisted of six theme parks covering 445 hectares. Each park included a casino and hotel, and required an investment of around €4.8 billion. 

In 2014, however, the company behind the original project withdrew, and three years later Hard Rock took over and significantly scaled down the project. 

The current project includes a large casino, two hotels, a large swimming pool, a commercial area and a conference center with a total capacity of 15,000 people

Image of the interior of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood (courtesy of Hard Rock, July 12 2017)
Image of the interior of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood (courtesy of Hard Rock, July 12 2017) / ACN

Why is it controversial? 

The casino complex project has been controversial over the past decade, sparking debates among political parties about the country's tourism and economic model. 

Critics argue that it would have a significant environmental impact on the area, exacerbate gambling addiction, and support a mass tourism and economic model that does not benefit the area. The ongoing drought in Catalonia adds another layer of complexity to the public approval of this mega-project. 

On the other hand, those in favor of the project see it as a major boost to Catalonia's GDP and a significant economic opportunity. 

Protest against the Hard Rock project
Protest against the Hard Rock project / Ariadna Escoda

Where does it stand now?

The Hard Rock project has been stalled for several years, awaiting the approval of a new Urban Development Plan (PDU) since the Catalan High Court (TSJC) annulled the original one in 2020. 

Despite assurances in last year's budget agreement between the government and the Socialists that the process would be completed in the first semester, it is still on hold, awaiting additional reports from the Climate Action Department. 

Esquerra, on the other hand, claims that the project is progressing according to its regular schedule. Climate Action Minister David Mascort confirmed on Friday that the report from his department's technicians on the project will be completed "in the coming weeks". 

Areas where the Hard Rock complex in Salou and Vila-seca is to be built
Areas where the Hard Rock complex in Salou and Vila-seca is to be built / Mar Rovira

How does it affect the budget negotiations?

On Tuesday, Comuns leader Jéssica Albiach issued an ultimatum to the government, threatening to withdraw from the budget negotiations if the government did not revoke the Hard Rock project.  

"If there is no explicit commitment from the president that the PDU will not be approved, we will not support the budgets," she said. 

In addition, the Comuns this week registered a law in parliament that would impose a 55% tax rate on the Hard Rock project if it becomes a reality. 

Amid the controversy, Catalan president Pere Aragonès said he was "not excited" about the project, stressing that the political decision to pass it was made in 2014 with the support of Convergència i Unió (now defunct), the Socialists and the conservative People's Party. 

"I don't know if the Hard Rock project will be realized in the end. It depends on private investors and is not a government decision," said Aragonès. He also warned that the Catalan government could face economic claims from private companies for acquired rights if the project does not go ahead. 

Catalan Economy Minister Natàlia Mas warned the Comuns that it would be "difficult to explain" if they blocked budgets over Hard Rock, as the party voted in favor of the 2022 budget "that explicitly included an allocation of €120 million for the Hard Rock project."  


Mas added that "citizens are tired of a project that monopolizes the political debate" and clarified that "not a single euro" in the budget is allocated to the project. 

Meanwhile, the far-left pro-independence party CUP has announced its intention to submit a total amendment to the 2024 budget. 

"We see no room for an agreement with a government that lives off the crumbs of the Socialists," CUP MP Mar Ampurdanès said after a meeting with the government.