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Crisis-Wracked Town Bets on Smurf-Based Economy

Two years on, some blue paint continues to save a classic village. Except for the "classic" part.
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Can a roadside attraction scam save a Spanish town?

So far, yes. The below (creepy) video summarizes one of the few programs to have found success combating southern Europe's now five-year-old unemployment crisis. The scheme recalls American highway towns' use of kitsch to lure passing travelers—free ice water, unlikely museums, cryptozoology.

In the U.S., advertisements for stops to behold the World's Largest Ball of String or a Real Dinosaur Footprint generally carry a sense that everyone's in on the joke. It's not clear there was anything but cold calculation in the decision by the town of Juzcar, in Spain's historic Malaga region, to declare itself the world's first "Smurf Village."

The southeast part of Spain where Juzcar sits is known for an archipelago of spectacular, all-white villages perched on dry cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. Each one is a Spanish version of Santorini, and stunning.

That part of Spain is also, however, known for some of Europe's most crushing unemployment, with youth dole rates creeping to two-thirds, and overall unemployment as high as 40 percent in some towns.

And then, in 2011, the people of Juzcar learned that Hollywood location scouts had tapped the tiny hamlet—it has less than 1,000 residents—to set a feature-length version of childhood classic—and parental nightmare—The Smurfs. (Los Pitufos in Spanish, if you're wondering.) As Hollywood does, the producers told Juzcar's town council that to get the gig, they would have to agree to temporarily paint every one of its classic, bone-white Andaluz stone buildings in a Smurfier baby blue. After the filming, the producers would pay to paint the whole town white again. Juzcar's mayor quickly agreed.

Fast forward two years to today. Juzcar is still blue. And it's a raging success. Turns out, tourist interest in a Smurf Village is greater than interest in a classic Andaluz one. Cue light blue cotton candy instead of bowls of ajo blanco (an almond-based soup served chilled, gazpacho's cooler, more sharply-witted older sister). Cue giant, primary color portraits of Smurfette painted over the balconies, instead of bougainvilla climbing over the tile.

Cue selling proximity to this experience:

Rather than this one:

(That video appears to be from the region, but not the town itself; musical styles differ between towns, but you get the idea.)

What to say? The town's rebranding from classic Andaluz town to "the world's first Smurf village" has been such a success—even the church remains blue. Producers of the movie continue to have a good relationship with the town, and will be screening this summer's sequel there. And why not: an entire community, in a region that could see another decade of crisis, converted itself into an advertisement for an international brand, and found some stability. The video at the top of this story boasts that the initial painting "provided work for 50 painters" including 15 who had been unemployed. In the same situation, it's not clear any town could make any other choice.

Whether the model is repeatable is the real tension now. Were more of the postcard towns on the financially desperate Spanish coast to start leaning on the economics of roadside attractions, they'd have a healthy customer base to draw upon. Spain received 57 million visits last year, according to Spanish government statistics—more tourists than it has actual citizens (47 million).