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With Messi and co as poster boys, Barcelona rises above Spain's woes

Just as London remains an island of prosperity while the rest of the United Kingdom is in the grip of the austerity, so it is with Spain and Barcelona.

Mohammed Sharaf, the chief executive of DP World, made a perceptive point at a recent investor meeting: London, he said, was not representative of Britain. While the rest of the country is in the grip of the austerity economy, London remains an island of prosperity.

After a brief trip to Spain last weekend, I have to report the same about the city of Barcelona. All the main Spanish indicators - unemployment, national debt, GDP - paint a picture of almost terminal decline. In contrast, Barcelona seems an oasis of commercial health.

Much like Dubai, the three Ts - trade, transport and tourism - are in evidence. Super large container vessels berth next to huge cruise ships in the harbour. The streets around the old city are thronged with tourists. The queues to get into the incredible Sagrada Família cathedral and the Picasso Museum were daunting.

Cafes, restaurants, and hotels were all trading briskly, and judging by the volume of business at the airport, Barcelona is firmly on the international tourist trail at all levels. Backpackers lined up side-by-side with the Louis Vuitton brigade in the check-in queues.

Whatever Spain is doing wrong in terms of economy does not seem to have infected Barcelona too much.

Visitors from the Arabian Gulf were much in evidence. The flight from Dubai was packed both ways, and the boarding line for the flight to Doha snaked around the airport departure lounge.

One thing attracting them - and maybe this is the factor that gives Barcelona the edge over the rest of the country - is the city's fantastic football club, FC Barcelona, or just Barca as everybody calls it.

"More than a club" is the slogan at the near 100,000 seater Camp Nou stadium, and it certainly is that: a symbol of Catalan pride, a social institution and a major tourist attraction are its other roles. What a place.

I was there with my son Patrick to celebrate his 16th birthday. Although he's a fervent supporter of Tottenham Hotspur (like dad), he believes Lionel Messi, Barca's Argentine superstar, is the best player in the world, and the Barca style of football the most attractive to watch. So a trip to Cam Nou was a great birthday present, I thought.

But alas, no Messi. He had been injured in the previous match, and was being rested to get ready for the big European match against Paris Saint-Germain tonight. So we had to be content with the rest of Barca's team of all the talents, soak up the atmosphere and watch hapless Majorca get beaten 5-0.

There is a major Middle Eastern influence at Camp Nou. Advertising hoardings for Turkish Airlines ring the stadium, and the teams emerge through an archway branded by the Qatar Foundation, which is also a shirt sponsor. I heard much Arabic spoken in the part of the ground where our seats were located. Obviously many Gulf residents make the trip a couple of times a month to watch the best football in the world.

The following day, after a pleasant tapas lunch by the beach, we took off to the Picasso Museum. Now, as I've said before in this column, I know nothing about art, but appreciate seeing the great masters.

But it was surely the only time I've been to an art gallery where the majority of visitors were wearing football shirts, all with the name Messi on the back. Barcelona has got its tourist marketing just about perfect, I reckon.



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