ICE Gaming Summit, New Hard Rock Casino in Barcelona, Spain, Become Political Weapons

Before the year is over, Hard Rock International and the International Casino Exhibition (ICE) gaming summit may become political weapons in Catalonia, Spain. Recent comments the autonomous community’s Health Minister made appear to hint that not everyone is excited about the potential arrival of either one.

Catalonia, Spain's Minister of Health, Manel Balcells, in an interview
Catalonia, Spain’s Minister of Health, Manel Balcells, in an interview. He has voiced concerns over the expansion of gambling in the region. (Image: El Periodico)

For years, London has played host to the International Casino Exhibition (ICE). It attracts tens of thousands of participants and industry representatives to discuss the changing gaming ecosystem, and the move has been emphatically welcomed by the gaming industry.

He shares a similar approach to Hard Rock’s planned Barcelona World in Salou and Vila-seca, which has already been the subject of major controversies. However, Catalonia’s Minister of Health, Manel Balcells, summed up his opinion of both in one sentence.

Not In The Interest of Society

The promotion of the complex with a casino and sports betting rooms was initially a big deal with Catalonia’s government years ago. It was one of the main reasons it was able to secure the approval of budgets from the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC, for its Spanish acronym).

The resort would include buildings 246 feet high and offer 322,917 square feet of gaming and betting space. However, environmental concerns and allegations of improprieties on the part of Hard Rock have brought the project to a halt.

About six weeks ago, Catalonia’s government voted to move the project forward, but only once again after it became an issue in negotiating the state budget. This was despite arguments that Barcelona World and similar projects jeopardize public health because they promote gambling.

Balcells objects to the development of Barcelona World. He told Catalunya Radio this week that it “goes against what we defend from a health point of view.”

His skepticism arrives at the same time the transfer of ICE to Barcelona is being announced. For 30 years, London hosted the event but Clarion Gaming, which organizes the trade show and summit, worked with the industry to find a suitable alternative.

The summit, which regularly welcomes over 45,000 attendees and reportedly has an economic impact of €280 million (US$307.32 million), is coming to Barcelona beginning in 2025. To this, Balcells added comments in the interview with Catalunya Radio that appear to show a degree of disdain regarding the move.

He stated, “Anything that encourages gambling and increases the risk of compulsive gambling is against public health.” He added that gambling is a “big problem [and] from a health point of view, we can only position ourselves against it.”

Political Crossroads

The government of Catalonia didn’t respond to a request for clarification. However, the comments seem to indicate a certain degree of disappointment over the expansion of gambling in and around Barcelona.

Political parties, directly or indirectly, are already using gambling as a political weapon to garner support. Catalonia is at an important crossroads now with the upcoming snap elections later this year, and the industry could find itself in a prominent position.

Spain will hold a vote to elect a new prime minister this October. The ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE, for its Spanish acronym) is being threatened by a right-wing coalition that includes the Popular Party and a newer upstart, the Vox party.

Vox has asserted that it wants to prohibit any talk of political succession, something that has been discussed by Catalonia’s government for years. However, it’s now backing down. It asserted recently that it’s willing to play only a minority role in politics in order to “avoid a government of national destruction” like the one it feels the PSOE is producing.

Since it backed off, the result is that the Popular Party would have to win the elections on its own. The latest polls suggest that no single party has enough votes, which means another vote may be necessary.

The disparity over opinions of gambling in Catalonia could help one party or another gain ground. By siding with the popular opinion, the parties can garner support and potentially avoid that second vote.

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