The World's Biggest White Elephants


In Southeast Asia, albino "white" elephants were considered especially prestigious and often owned by kings. The gift of a white elephant, while considered a blessing, also landed the recipient with a fairly useless beast which would cost a lot to house and feed. A white elephant gradually became to idiomatically mean any expensive venture or building project which was very expensive, with limited use. Whether sports venues built for a big event, or a "bridge to nowhere", here are 12 projects which blew past their already elephantine budgets.

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Updated 4 years ago


Berlin Brandenburg International Airport

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Schöneberg, Germany • Wishlist • 

The Germans are great at engineering, right? Berlin's new national capital airport was supposed to open in 2012. Six billion euros later, the concourses, runways and baggage carousels lie empty. After the reunification of East and West Germany, building new infrastructure in Berlin was a priority, and politicians wanted to replace the aging Tempelhof, Tegel and Schoenefeld with a new mega-airport. What followed was a saga of poor management, politicians getting involved in engineering decisions and several redesigns to account for new aircraft types and low-cost airlines. As the budget spiralled out of control, it was found that the fire suppression system for the whole airport didn't work properly. Eventually more than half a million faults were found. The new opening date is October 2020, but few Berliners will believe that!

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Palace of Parliament

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Bucharest, Romania • Wishlist • 

The third largest building in the world, and the heaviest, this monstrosity was ordered by Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and built between 1984 and 1997. Despite costing 3 billion euros, it lies 70% empty. The electricity bill alone costs $6 million per year. The totalitarian architecture, which reminds Romanians of the dark days of dictatorship is unpopular, with many joking that the best thing about the view from the Palace of the Parliament is that it is the one view in Bucharest from where you don't have to see the Palace of the Parliament.

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Ryugyong Hotel

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Pyongyang, North Korea • Wishlist • 

When I visited Pyongyang in 2006, our ever-present guides pointedly ignored this enormous pyramidal hotel which towers over Pyongyang, so we attempted to sneak it into the background of whatever photo we were taking of a Pyongyang monument. Started in 1987, construction was halted in 1992 as North Korea entered an economic crisis. At 330m tall, it is the tallest unoccupied building in the world, according to the Guinness Book of Records. In 2018 a large LED screen was added which shows patriotic animations, but it seems unlikely the hotel will open any time soon.

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New South China Mall City Life

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Dongguan, China • Wishlist • 

In 2005, the largest shopping mall in the world opened in Dongguang at a cost of $1.3 billion, but for the first ten years of its life was almost empty. Artificial canals became green with algae. In 2011, the mall was at 1% occupancy. Eventually, after a pivot towards attracting lower to middle class tenants, the mall started to fill up since 2017 and now attracts families with its mix of cinemas, retail and F&B.

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Mattala International Airport Navigation Complex

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Kandy, Sri Lanka • Wishlist • 

A 12,000 square metre terminal building, 12 checkin counters, a capacity for a million passengers a year, and no flights. Hidden in the jungle near the city of Hambantota, the dream was for this to become Sri Lanka's second major international airport. But this underdeveloped region of fishing villages seems to have been picked because it was the home region of president Mahinda Rajapaksa rather because of any actual demand. Bankrolled by USD5 billion of loans from China, who were more than willing to help out countries in the region in exchange for buy-in on their "Belt and Road" vision, construction proceeded smoothly, but as soon as the airport opened it was clear that it would be a struggle to attract passengers. While Sri Lankan Airlines were strong-armed into operating flights, with a change of president in 2015 they withdrew operations and the airport was effectively mothballed. Ironically, real elephants can occasionally be spotted wandering on the runway tarmac of this white elephant, undisturbed by the possibility of a plane landing.

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Yalujiang Bridge

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Dandong, China • Wishlist • 

North Korea returns for the second time in this list with this 3km bridge linking Dandong, China with Sinuiju, North Korea. The bridge cost China over US$300 million to build and was supposed to replace the previous Sino-Korean friendship bridge. While construction began in 2011 and is largely complete, North Korea failed to build anything on their side of the river, so the bridge is completely disconnected from the road network, and the bridge terminates in a large field.

  • Ya Lu Jiang Da Qiao, Zhenxing Qu, Dandong Shi, Liaoning Sheng, China

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Russky Bridge

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Vladivostok, Russia • Wishlist • 

Over a kilometre long, this bridge in Vladivostok was built for the 2012 APEC conference, which was hosted at the Far Eastern Federal University campus on Russky Island. The longest cable-stayed bridge in the world, with construction costs of over USD 1 billion, the bridge can handle over 50,000 cars per day. Only problem - the population of Russky Island is a mere 5,000, so the Putin-backed megaproject is barely used.

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Mané Garrincha Stadium

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Brasília, Brazil • Wishlist • 

Opened in 1974, and renovated for the 2014 World Cup at an eye-watering cost of US$900 million, this stadium in Brasilia was named after the Brazilian footballing legend Mané Garrincha, who won the World Cup twice with Brazil. But after the World Cup leaves, what do you do with a 73,000 capacity football stadium in a city which doesn't even have a football team in the top three divisions? Some matches attract only a few hundred spectators, and the stadium has been rented out for weddings, obstacle courses and less-than-prestiguous events like the the 42nd Congress of the Brazilian Zoos and Aquariums Society.

  • North Wing, Brasilia - Federal District, 70070-701, Brazil

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Ciudad Real, Airport

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Jaén, Spain • Wishlist • 

Optimistically named "South Madrid Airport" by its developers, the airport actually lies a good 227km south of the centre of the city. Constructed at a cost of 1.1 billion euros, it never attracted many flights and operations ran for only three years before the holding company went bankrupt. A Chinese company attempted to buy the site for just €10,000 in 2015 but was rejected, as of 2019 no-one has bought the site and it remains unused.

  • +34 926 84 17 13
  • Autovía Cdad. Real-Puertollano, Salida 178, 13434, Cdad. Real, Spain

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Olympic Stadium

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Longueuil, Canada • Wishlist • 

Nicknamed the "Big O" due to its shape, it quickly gained the moniker "The Big Owe" due to the exponentially increasing costs of construction. While the stadium did house the 1976 Olympic ceremonies, the tower and the roof were not completed until 1987. The stadium has not had a major tenant since the Expos baseball team left in 2004. The deteriorating roof means that events cannot be held if more than 3cm of snow falls. Whether a new roof is constructed, or the stadium is eventually demolished, it seems Montreal's stadium will never live up to its Olympic dream.

  • +1 514 252 4141
  • 4141 Avenue Pierre-De Coubertin, Montréal, QC H1V 3N7, Canada

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Citeureup, Indonesia • Wishlist • 

Officially the "National Sports Development, Education and Training Center" this facility was supposed to be a world-class venue for Indonesia's sportsmen and sportswomen to train. Along the way, the budget ballooned from US$10 million to US$150 million. The site for the complex was in a hilly area, causing many construction problems, and an investigation by the Indonesian anti-grant agency the KPK found that at least a third of the budget had been embezzled. Mired in legal and construction woes, it seems likely the Hambalang complex will never be completed.

  • Citeureup, Bogor, West Java, Indonesia

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City of Culture of Galicia

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A Coruña, Spain • Wishlist • 

A complex of cultural buildings in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, construction began after an international design competition in 1999 won by American architect Peter Eisenman. Eisenman visualized a set of buildings supposed to look like rolling hills. This immediately led to challenging construction, as nearly every window of the buildings needed its own custom shape. In 2013 after the cost of the project has already exceeded double its budget, it was announced that no further buildings would be constructed. A combination of lofty ambition with poor economic timing, the site has been described as "little more than four large under-capacity buildings adjacent to two big holes in the ground".

  • +34 881 99 75 65
  • Monte Gaiás, s/n, 15707 Santiago de Compostela, La Coruña, Spain

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