International development group threatens to definitively pull out of stymied €200 million project in Loulé

United Investments Portugal – part of world class IFA Hotels and Resorts owned by Kuwaiti sheik Talal Al-Bahari – is threatening to definitively pull out of its €200 million plan for Vale do Freixo, in Loulé’s ‘barrocal’ heartland, and take its money elsewhere.

The announcement, made today via Jornal de Negocios – and restricted to paying customers only – follows years in which the project, awarded PIN status (project of national importance) five years ago, has been delayed due to environmental concerns.

Today’s ‘exclusive’ is presented as a ‘last ditch attempt’ to get things moving – and sees UIP director general Carlos Leal lob some ‘heavy criticism’.

“Why should we put money in a country where our investment is not welcome”, he is quoted as asking Negocios. “It doesn’t make sense. There are other countries that would give us a greater return and where we would not be seen as villains trying to destroy Nature”.

“We cannot wait indefinitely… Either we get a response, a reason why the project is not being approved, or we close the door and invest elsewhere”.

UIP already runs the exclusive Pine Cliffs and Sheraton Cascais resorts, and is a partner in projects in Spain and the United States.

Insists Leal: “I am not asking for approval (for Vale do Freixo), just that they give me an answer. If not, the land will be left to abandon. It can just stay there. It is all paid for. Maybe one day there will be another government”, he added, inferring that until there is “we will not invest another cêntimo” in the project that includes – according to Negocios online – a hotel, an 18-hole golf course, a business centre (with contracts that Leal said are already confirmed), a centre for investigation and a “residential component”.

Archive stories give a slightly more detailed picture, suggesting the residential component amounts to 370 villas, while the hotel and attached residencies will offer 1700 beds.

The hold up, too, has come from the ICNF – the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forestry – not the government, per se.

The ICNF’s concerns centre on the land’s ‘protection’ under Rede Nature 2000, and how it may be compromised by a project of Vale do Freixo’s proportions.

Negocios explains: “The ICNF is not convinced that the project will not prejudice an environmental area”.

The ICNF’s reservations have delighted environmentalists fighting relentlessly over the years to ‘save the Barrocal’ from not only this project, but that of Quinta da Ombria nearby – which has still to start any form of building despite periodic announcements that construction is imminent, and despite having received its first building licences two years ago.

A source for Quinta da Ombria has told the Resident that the company has to make “some alterations” to the initial development plan that not only upset Almargem, the League for the Protection of Nature and others, but also found censure from Brussels. Thus the only component underway right now is that of the golf course, which is still under construction.

Back to Vale do Freixo, Negocios explains that the ICNF runs under the auspices of the environment ministry, which has said that the ‘process’ is “in the hands of Loulé council with the elaboration of the Vale do Freixo Urbanisation Plan”.

Pressed for answers, Loulé council is described as having asked Negocios to put all their questions in writing.

The paper explains that having done so, and been in touch repeatedly over the weeks, answers have not been forthcoming. Nonetheless, reporters appear to have managed a “quick phone call” in which council boss Vítor Aleixo laid blame for the delays firmly on the ICNF, saying the institute wants a “strategic environmental study” before it can give the project the green light.

Stressing that he is trying to “unblock” the project that promises up to 350 new jobs, Aleixo told Negocios that he understands UIP’s frustrations.

“Of course the intention (of abandoning investment) does not leave me happy”, he said.

Environmental association Almargem, on the other hand, will be holding its breath with anticipation. It has repeatedly dubbed both Vale do Freixo and Quinta da Ombria as “threats” to the various protected habitats and underground aquifers of the “barrocal” that it fears could be damaged beyond repair if building were allowed to go ahead.

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