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Travel

Istanbul shopping district losing its charme

Gentrification imposed from above, a series of terrorist attacs and political turbulence have alienated European tourists and hurt business in Istanbul's Beyoglu district, local businesspeople say.

The youth-friendly street culture of Istanbul's Beyoglu district is attempting to transfrom into a home for upmarket retailers. "This is the first time in 25 years that I've seen such a sharp decline in profits. All the neighbouring businesses are feeling the strain," says Abdullah, the owner of a small garment stop in Istanbul's Beyoglu district.

Until a few years ago, Istiklal Avenue, Beyoglu's famous shopping mile, attracted many Europeans to its lively atmosphere and blend of street music and nostalgia. The businesses on Istiklal, from small pastry shops to luxury stores, cosy cafes and galleries, pinned their hopes on these high-income spenders more than others.

Türkei Straßenszene in Istanbul (picture-alliance/dpa/C. Hoffmann)

Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul

This trend however is now changing quickly with visitors from the Middle East and elsewhere outnumbering Europeans in Beyoglu. In the first seven months of the year, nearly 2 million German nationals came to Turkey, down from nearly 3 million from the same period in 2015, data from the Turkey's Tourism Ministry show. "Many of the Western tourists do not feel safe here and I hope that changes soon. We want them back," says Mustafa, who works at a lingerie shop on Istiklal, recalling that one of the suicide bombings took place in front of his shop. Iran and Saudi Arabia replaced Britain and France on the list of top five countries that sent the highest number of travellers to Istanbul between January and July this year according to data from Istanbul Culture and Tourism Directorate.

To keep pace with this change in tourist demographics, many stores in Beyoglu now have signs in Arabic and Persian while most salesmen can speak these two languages. The changing tourist profile comes with changing spending habits and that is a concern, shopkeepers tell. "As opposed to a few years ago, tourists from the Middle East prefer big malls for discounts instead of shopping on a popular street," Huseyin Kirk, the head of an Istanbul-based tourism union tells. "The Arabs and Iranians come only to see what is around, maybe have a coffee or eat at a restaurant. Then, led by the all-inclusive-package tours, they leave for shopping elsewhere," says Izzet who runs an Istiklal textile shop. Beyoglu's woes are not only security-related.

Gentrification imposed from the top, aimed at attracting even more tourists, transformed Beyoglu for the worse, locals argue. "Everything that replaces the old, characteristic landmarks on Istiklal just looks ugly. The authorities only care for big malls but these are also suffering from lower profits," Mucella, a retired architect and a shop owner, explains. The change from small shops and bars to large chain stores and big brands was accompanied by measures that dented a Beyoglu's culture of street entertainment.  In 2011, the Beyoglu municipality imposed restrictions on outdoor seating for bars and restaurants to make thoroughfares passable. This however ended a lively street atmosphere that was attractive to many young people and party-goers. "Some bars that left due to low income were replaced by shisha cafes that cater to tourists from the Middle East," Ercan from a pastry shop tells.

And then there's the ongoing renovation work that has been going on as part of the gentrification project. The local authorities have declined to comment on these issues, including on chaos the renovation has caused for the past nine months.

Ergin Hava (dpa)
 

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