5 Absurdly Expensive Vanity Projects That Cost Countries Millions

Cool statue! Just maybe not "50 million dollars" cool.
5 Absurdly Expensive Vanity Projects That Cost Countries Millions

Countries’ proper use of public funds is something that, almost without fail, is always subject to derisive scrutiny. In many cases, of course, the scrutiny is well deserved. When you’re throwing out money sums that well eclipse an amount an ordinary citizen’s entire bloodline would ever be able to amass, you’d better make sure the reasoning is pretty damn bulletproof. Wasted public funds are even more closely judged now, with the world’s infrastructure and economy still showing deep scars after the COVID pandemic. It doesn’t help that scandals involving embezzled public funds are a regular part of the news cycle.

You can have long and relevant arguments about the amounts spent on things like the military or defense contractors, but it will always be met with the condescending “we’re just keeping you safe” explanation, instead of a realistic budget breakdown and demonstration of effect. Some stuff, though, is fairly indefensible, by being something that is so physically large it’s impossible to ignore, hugely expensive, and almost completely useless.

These sort of vanity projects nowadays are often referred to as “white elephants,” a saying that now graces Secret Santa spinoffs but originated in Southeast Asia. Monarchs there considered a white elephant an ultimate sign of power and luxury, and receiving one as a gift was an unmeasurable honor. Unfortunately, honor was pretty much the only positive of getting one, as they were more likely to make your day-to-day life a living hell. 

The white elephants were prohibited from performing any labor on account of being so sacred, and were an absolute money sink. Not to mention you couldn’t give it away without pissing off the kind of monarch that was giving away white elephants. Imagine winning a Bugatti in a lottery that you had to pay taxes on and keep in perfect working condition, but you weren’t allowed to drive it and neither you or your descendants were ever allowed to sell it.

Here are 5 modern-day white elephant projects that countries burned money on.

Qatar World Cup

Gill Clark

If you’re watching the World Cup currently happening in Qatar, you’re witnessing the majesty of the massive stadiums (7 built specifically for the event) and required infrastructure built by Qatar to host the event. When it’s over, however, and the world’s TVs turn elsewhere, that stadium will probably turn into yet another abandoned testament to a couple weeks of activity. You don’t need a business degree, or really even high-school math, to see that the math doesn’t work out. Qatar has spent approximately 220 billion dollars on hosting the world cup. The estimated money to be made off the event for Qatar is only $17 billion. You know something is too expensive when the prospect of it making $17 billion dollars is a massive failure.

So why not only go through with this, but participate in aggressive, questionably immoral practices all in order to lose a hair over 200 billion dollars? Qatar was never in this for the money, but wanted to host in order, basically, for the clout, and in order to improve the global image of Qatar. Something that, pretty definitively, is not happening. The added attention has only brought them further scrutiny, along with a whole new commercial airliner’s worth of baggage. It’s basically been kind of like paying the world $200 billion to attend your talent show and then shitting your pants in the middle of your dance number.

Russky Bridge

Public Domain

At first, public funds going to building a bridge seems like a perfectly reasonable allocation. When the bridge in question remains one of the largest bridges in the world, you’d surely think that the product not only is a massive boon to the day-to-day lives of citizens, but a revered worldwide landmark. The Russky Bridge in Russian (Russia misusing public funds? Wha?) is very much not that. It’s the bridge equivalent of popping a massive spoiler on a used Kia. Sure, it’s TECHNICALLY doing something. But nobody’s impressed.

The bridge connects Vladivostok to Russky Island. It is the only bridge to or from Russky Island, meaning that it is a 3,100 meter bridge with the single, express purpose of going to an island with a population of roughly 5,300 people. To add insult to overspending, when it was first finished, the road coming off the bridge onto the island was a dead end. It was built to provide transportation to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in 2012, even though there were ferries and other forms of transportation that could have done the job. The final cost of the bridge, which ended up serving a few thousand vehicles? $1.1 billion dollars.

Nagano Olympic Stadium


Olympic stadiums are a famously poor national investment, with much made by many every time they roll around on how rarely the Olympics follow through on their promises of local revitalization. The glow of the 5 rings, though, seems to forever outweigh the warnings of the past, and every event is met with a clamor of bids and campaigning for the economically devastating honor. As far as examples, we could easily stay right there in Russia and look at the failings of the Sochi Olympics, but given the fact that a huge amount of the costs are suspected to have gone to gold statuettes or captive tigers for crooked officials, it seems too easy.

Instead, let’s look at a country that truly tried to make it work: Japan, with the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. Now, it wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up, since they too, were subject to accusations of bribery related to the event. Still, the Japanese government ended up shelling out around 10.5 billion dollars in preparation for the event, spending it on things like a baseball stadium for a hypothetical Nagano team that never materialized, and a bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano that was supposed to support tourism… but ended up just making it more convenient to stay in Tokyo instead of Nagano.

Brexit Festival

Open Government License

The less said about the series of rakes England has set out and then stepped on with Brexit, the better. In their dogged persistence to make Brexit a THING, though, they have also made plans to pour 120,000,000 pounds, or about 150 million dollars into the almost guaranteed toilet bowl that would be a “Brexit festival.” After all, who wouldn’t love a long, lavish couple of days spent expressly to remind them of an extremely recent and divisive political firestorm that tanked their economy?

Guan Yu Statue


Every item on this list is a massive waste of money, but at least the other four have the honor of an actual stated use. The final item on this list was built to attract tourism to the city of Jingzhou in Hubei Province, China. The creation in question is a massive bronze statue of famous Chinese military figure, Guan Yu. Weighing in at 1,200 tons and 190 feet tall, the statue is, undeniably, impressive. And all for the low, low price of 25 million dollars! Unfortunately, the ratio of expense to actual benefit here comes out somewhere around that of a solid gold toilet. Well, the toilet might win, because it’s probably illegal to piss on the statue.

The giant statue hasn’t achieved much in the way of tourism, either, most frequently being admired via regular reddit posts or scattered internet jpegs. In terms of actual tourism activity, it’s brought in the lowly estimate of only 2 mil. The thing pushing this statue over the top, and bringing it to the cream of the unfortunate crop in this article, is some recent news. The city of Jingzhou hates the statue so much that the government is now spending an additional 24 MILLION DOLLARS to move it. In terms of return on investment, you’d probably be better off shorting Exxon.

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