Prostitutes overrun a Spanish icon

Barcelona’s famous Las Ramblas is becoming too seedy for tourists

090915_spainOn Barcelona’s Las Ramblas—the bustling thoroughfare known for its flower vendors, dancing buskers and the 250,000 visitors a day it attracts—tourists have plenty of fodder for photos. But the images that recently surfaced of prostitutes servicing men just off the strip’s iconic market are not the stuff of postcards. The photographs, published in the Spanish newspaper El Paìs, have drawn attention to Las Ramblas’ seedier side. As one restaurateur recently told the Times, “There are more prostitutes than ever. They don’t wait for their clients, they go looking for them.”

For as long as tourists have flocked to the cobblestone strip that connects the city centre with the old harbour, the street has had a dark underbelly. In 1907, Pablo Picasso featured prostitutes from a brothel on nearby Avinyó Street in his painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. By night, it has never been unusual to spot drug dealers or drunken revellers in the area.

But critics say the balance has tipped too far toward the tawdry. Las Ramblas is now frequented by pickpockets; travellers are warned to hold their purses tightly. Even before the sex photos surfaced, La Vanguardia newspaper observed that on Las Ramblas, “The sensation is of chaos, of a lost city.”

At issue, it seems, is the country’s lax prostitution laws. The exploitation of women is banned but prostitution itself is not, making Spain an ideal choice for gangs looking to profit from pimping out illegal immigrants.

In recent days, government officials have been scrambling to restore order, with Barcelona Mayor Jordi Hereu calling for a ban on prostitution in the city centre. But others say the proposal is ill-advised. They argue that legalization—not repression—is what’s needed to keep lewd scenes off the street.