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The Dark Truth Behind Tourism in Amsterdam’s Red-Light District

The future of the Dutch sex industry is uncertain, but who is really to blame?

Credit: Layla Marie

Amsterdam. A city rich with culture. The home of renowned artworks by the likes of Rembrandt and Van Gogh or of bikes, where cyclists control the roads. The home of the Dutch people, renowned for their friendly and carefree nature.

Yet, for many visitors, all this is dismissed by one simple label: “the home of sex and drugs.” As tourism rates grow, perhaps it is no longer Amsterdam itself to blame but the people it attracts instead.

Through The Eyes Of A Tourist

Walking into the Red-Light District one evening, I was overwhelmed with a sense of nervous excitement. What would be around the corner? First, I saw the crowds, then the sharp glow of red filling the streets, and finally, the windows.

At once, I was fascinated. Everyone has heard about the ladies displayed like clothes on a mannequin, but in the flesh, it felt surreal. They stood in confidence, not ashamed of their profession. The walk down Outzijds Acherburgwal (the main street of the district) was a mere 10 minutes, but by the end, I felt compelled to know the story behind each woman behind a window.

However, another thought struck me as I was leaving the street. My visit had been one of curiosity, respectfully wandering down the street to understand more about what cannot be denied as a key component of Amsterdam’s history. However, a brief look around revealed that was ultimately not the case for all. Packs of intoxicated people swarmed the pathway, drunk or high (or both), chaos and noise following them at all times.

A red street sign by the Amsterdam canal. It displays an empty alcohol bottle to signal the 'no-alcohol zone'.
‘No Alcohol Zone’ signs such as this one are common in Amsterdam. Credit: Shutterstock/TeamDAF

The following day I was more alert to this fact. I noticed bold signs (written in English, not Dutch) glaring me in the face. No drinking on the streets, public peeing, or littering in the canal. Reminders of basic, respectful behavior, which Amsterdam’s guests had clearly struggled to adhere to.

A canal tour guide criticizing the British drinking culture through snarky jokes. A shopkeeper struggling to give recommendations of places that weren’t ‘way too busy’. A sex worker chasing someone halfway down the street after they took a non-consensual photo. The signs were everywhere: Amsterdam hated tourists.

The History Of De Wallen

The Red-Light District (or ‘De Wallen’ as referred to by Dutch locals) is home to around 300 rooms rented by licensed prostitutes. The area is famous for its rows of windows or glass doors, mimicking a form of ‘window shopping’ by ‘displaying’ women who would like to offer sexual services.

A street in the Red Light District during the morning. The red curtains are drawn in all the windows.
The Red Light District before opening in the morning. Credit: Layla Marie

Although this may seem to feel unfamiliar, De Wallen has been established for centuries, making it an ingrained part of Amsterdam’s history. It originated in late medieval times, when a ban on prostitution led to women notifying visiting sailors of their sexual services by lighting a red candle in their window. The Netherlands has had a complicated relationship with sex work ever since, alternating between toleration and suppression. On the 1st of October in 2000, brothels were officially declared as legal and licensed businesses.

The district has no doubt defied the odds, surviving challenges from all areas of society (religion, politics, morality, to name a few). Yet, after centuries, it appears De Wallen may finally have met its match: tourism.

Overtourism

Twenty million people are predicted to visit Amsterdam each year, dwarfing the mere 1 million figure for residents. The city is overrun by holiday-goers, and fears that it is losing its life and culture and life as a result have been growing.

Blurred crowds of unrecognizable people on the street.
Overtourism, like overpopulation, is simply too many tourists in one destination. Credit: Shutterstock/Aleksandr Ozerov

To make matters worse, the types of people who tend to visit are no longer just unnecessary but unwanted as well. An unruly crowd has been attracted by the allure of a legal sex and soft drug industry. The privilege of these new liberties has been wrongly misinterpreted as an excuse for large ‘party’ groups to ‘go wild’, and the behavior, as a result, is often unacceptable.

Loud noise late into the night, harassment of sex workers and even public urination are common events every day. With such little respect shown, it is no surprise that the attitude toward tourists is hostile. Reclaiming their city has long been a desire of the Dutch people, though the journey towards an amicable relationship between the Red-Light District and tourism is far from over.

Redesigning The Red Light District

The battle against tourism began when the Dutch Government introduced Project 1012 (named after the district’s postal code) in 2007. This involved the closure of several brothels, minimizing the spread of the sex industry, and so regaining control of the flow of tourists. The following years saw the introduction of higher tourism taxes, a fine system, and a ban on beer bikes in the center – all clearly targeted at visitors.

Colored and original beer bike, special leisure device in use in East of Europe. Unique mean of transportation while having a party.
Beer bikes were banned in 2017 after encouraging too much anti-social behavior. Credit: Shutterstock/Chris Worldwide

The first concerns surfaced over a decade ago, and changes are still being made. Throughout the Red-Light District, reduced opening times and stricter rules on both alcohol and cannabis consumption have been implemented as recently as May this year.

An ‘Erotic Center’

Even after all these changes, the government still isn’t satisfied. This has led to the most controversial idea yet. The mayor has proposed a new ‘erotic center’, an environment designed specifically for the sex industry to flourish, while also being located at a reasonable distance from the city center. This will involve the displacement of many brothels from their current location, combined with the creation of new amenities (such as sex-related shops).

A yellow sign above a shop door in Amsterdam.
A popular sex-related shop in the current Red Light District. Credit: Layla Marie

The hope is that the concentration of crowds will be reduced as well as more regulated, improving both the quality of life for locals and the image of Amsterdam itself. While this solution may sound ideal in theory, the response has shown that, in practice, it may cause more harm than good.

Public Dispute

In March, 150 of the Red Light District’s sex workers participated in a protest march against the new plan. Several reasons they gave were related to the practicality. They felt the quieter area would have a significant toll on their earnings while also reducing their safety. The surrounding neighborhoods would be less busy and less policed, therefore putting the traveling sex workers (often carrying large amounts of cash) at risk.

The social issues raised were just as significant. Amsterdam historically has advocated for an accepting and destigmatizing attitude toward the sex trade. While the current set-up allows the women to feel connected with the city, the new strategy would feel like they were being cast away. Out of sight, out of mind, perhaps.

A busy Amsterdam street. People walking and a tram can be seen in front of a large building.
The protest march took place through Amsterdam’s city center. Credit: Unsplash/Yovan Verma

Even the locals themselves (whom this plan should benefit most) are unhappy and have even created an online petition. The manifest claims that relocating the Red-Light District would make no difference to their quality of life, as it highlights how it is ‘important to consider the crowds in the area independent of window prostitution’. It suggests that sex workers are not at all to blame, and so the problem must be approached with a greater focus on tourism itself instead.

‘It is a poor tactical solution to a mostly understood issue.’

Part I: Manifesto Against The Erotic Centre

The petition has gained huge popularity, advertised by bright posters all over the area and supported by over thirty high-profile Dutch businesses and organizations.

Looking To The Future

A safe and successful Red-Light District is by no means easy to achieve, particularly when so many sections of society are involved. Yet, the end goal is common to all, even for tourists themselves in some cases (such as myself). A recent statement made by Amsterdam’s council hopes once again for ‘a city center that has its own unique identity and a proper balance maintained between living, working, and tourism’. Only time will tell if this vision can truly be restored.

Written By

Hi I'm Layla! I'm a UCL student from the UK, studying English Literature. I enjoy writing about travel and social issues.

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