Robert Pimm

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Why Barcelona is like Istanbul – in a bad way

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I read with interest this week a fine article in the New York Times by Raphael Minder.  Minder mourned the disappearance, through rent increases, of the traditional shops which made the Gothic quarter of Barcelona unique.


Traditional kebab vendors on Istiklal Street in Istanbul. Photo: Robert Pimm

I visited Barcelona in 2006 and wrote my own piece on this subject for the Financial Times.  Entitled “When tourist reinvention spins out of control”.  It’s on this site.

I wrote then:

It may be that filling the alleyways of the Gothic quarter with branches of Dunkin’ Donuts, Foot Locker and the Hard Rock Café is the easiest way to separate visitors from their money.  But the day these come to predominate over older shops and restaurants with names such as El Ingenio, Gran Cuchilleria and La Fuente Xarcuteria, Barcelona will come another step closer to being like everywhere else.

The decline of the most wonderful places on earth in the face of globalisation and mass tourism has long been an interest of mine.  We all want to see these fabulous sites.  But if a billion people want to visit the underground churches of Cappadocia and only ten people can fit inside at any one time, what do you do?

Apart from get there early, of course.

My Barcelona piece noted that Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s most famous street, had lost much of its charm as it was swamped by tourists.  A similar fate threatens one of Istanbul’s most iconic thoroughfares, Istiklal.

This magnificent, mile-long pedestrian street, formerly know as the Grande Rue de Pera, is jammed for much of the day with a terrific mix of tourists and locals. But the historic and sometimes scruffy small shops, cafes and restaurants which give Istiklal its charm are being inexorably replaced by the same global chains which are threatening Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter.

You can argue that we’re simply seeing the operation of market forces.  In the summer, the queues are longer to buy a predictable ice-cream from Burger King or McDonalds for one Turkish Lira than to buy an authentic Turkish ice-cream for several times more from a traditional vendor in red-and-gold waistcoat and a fez.

But if only Burger King and McDonalds are left, why come to Istanbul – or Barcelona?

Sometimes to serve the interests of a city, planners have to think about bigger issues than maximising short-term income.

You can read Raphael Minder’s article in The New York Times here.

You may also enjoy my collection of “Hotel Stories” now available on Amazon.


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