Catch it While You Can:
Amsterdam's Vanishing Red Light District
The main reason why Amsterdam manages to compete with other major Europeans cities and other top international tourist destinations is that it has a unique reputation and mix of attractions - but, you need to know, this may be coming to an end, we urge you to visit soon if you want to experience the Amsterdam you have heard so much about.
In terms of brand recognition amongst people all over the world, no other city has managed to blend together so well a reputation for wealth, social tolerance, political sophistication and sheer hedonism. Amsterdam somehow pulled off the incredible trick of having the world’s most famous prostitution district but, far from being seen as seedy by association, was rather admired for it by those of us living in less progressive countries. It also appeared to have the only government in the world with vaguely sane policies towards soft drugs and, again, far from being seen as a nation of hopeless stoners, the Dutch were widely lauded for their enlightened pragmatism.
Of course, it helped that the red light and cannabis cafe aspects of Amsterdam were balanced by pleasing architecture and a rich cultural heritage, both with centuries of colonial wealth behind them. That was the winning hand that Amsterdam always held: one could visit Amsterdam, for business or just a vacation, and feel excited by the combination of all those things, with no one aspect dominating your reasons for going … even if you did end up spending 90% of your vacation stoned out of your mind in a succession of dodgy coffee shops.
After over a decade of helping visitors to find the perfect vacation rental apartments for their stay in Amsterdam, we are all too aware of the mix of considerations that bring visitors to this city. If you are a UK couple deciding upon a weekend break, the European competition is tough: Paris is stunning and offers the best art, Barcelona is tremendous fun, Berlin is full of energy, Dublin will be a laugh, Prague will be great value. If you are a visitor from further afield, such as Asia or the Americas, your decision about what cities to visit in Europe will be even more difficult, because this could be your only chance to see Europe and there is real pressure to stick to top-tier cities such as London, Paris, Rome and, increasingly, Berlin.
What we have seen is that, for the vast majority of those who do opt to visit Amsterdam, the decision is tipped in its favour the combination of very different experiences that the city offers. No-one would deny that the galleries and museums of Amsterdam are excellent but, alone, they are simply not in the same league as London, Paris or Rome. For theatre, Amsterdam is probably pretty good - if you speak Dutch. In terms of beauty, again, the canals and old buildings of Amsterdam contrast attractively with vigor of modern corporate architecture and the urban pragmatism of bicycles flying around, but there is nothing here in the same league as Rome, Paris or Venice. For shopping, again, simply not any sort of competition to London and Paris.
What has managed to prop up Amsterdam for decades, what has managed to make it a mainstay in the top tier of European destinations, if that it offered that unique combination: a couple could visit and enjoy the galleries, the architecture, the bicycles and the museums … but, also, mischievously assess each other’s reaction to the Red Light District, they could daringly try a joint that they would never touch at home and, perhaps most importantly, they could meet others on a similar adventure.
Now, of course, what it is very important to remember is that practically no-one visiting Amsterdam is unable to find either prostitution or soft drugs within more than a few minutes of their own homes. These things are widely and obviously available in every modern city and town. Hell, if you have an Internet connection, you can probably get a hooker to come to your own home, you can probably even get her to bring some drugs with her.
The deal with Amsterdam, however, was that it is the world’s Disneyland of “being naughty” - visitors get to look, close-up, at a mild, non-threatening version of vice, they even get to dabble if they want, but it is a “What happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” atmosphere. Nothing that might happen during a relaxing Amsterdam evening, after a hard day of staring at Van Gogh paintings, is meant to have any consequences or any affect on your “real” life back in your own town: if this is sin, it is a marvellously contained and constrained sort of sin.
Now, if the coffee shops and the Red Light Districts were to magically disappear over night, Amsterdam would still be a wealthy city, a major European capital with a rich cultural heritage … but we are absolutely convinced, having talked to visitors every day since we launched our business in 2000, that the overall package would no longer be appealing enough to swing the decision to visit in Amsterdam’s favour. Sadly, the powers that be in Amsterdam seem to be blissfully unaware of this.
Few politicians can be accused of truly having vision and, when they do, they tend towards rather ill-judged acts, such as invading Poland. Luckily, the vast majority of politicians are mental midgets with the imaginative capacity of a pot of yoghurt and nowhere are they more stunted than in local politics. All over the world, local politicians take bad decisions based upon delusion, incompetence and a complete misunderstanding of how their citizens actually manage to make a living.
In Amsterdam, the current crop of sociopaths swept to local power on a wave of hysteria and misguided populism, mainly driven by the ongoing deterioration of European economies following the great bank heist of 2008. At a time when the tourist industry in Amsterdam, just like every other city, was already under tremendous pressure, they decided that Amsterdam’s reputation as a city of sin was the problem, and they set about systematically dismantling all that made Amsterdam so special.
Of course, rather than come right out and say that they want to close down the coffee shops and the Red Light District, possibly risking a sudden waking up of their electorate, they have patiently brought in layer after layer of new regulations and restrictions. Dutch people are tremendously fond of regulations - running any sort of business in the Netherlands is an ongoing struggle with red tape - but the majority of the population perceive big government as a good thing and those with a puritanical agenda have masterfully manipulated that inclination.
In the case of coffee shops, their tactics have been to slowly introduce regulations that, on the face of it, sound like a good idea. For instance, in 2008 they introduced a rule that there must be a minimum distance of 350 meters between a coffee shop and any school. This sounded like a vaguely plausible way to “protect the kiddies” until you remembered that there is already a law that stops them selling to anyone under the age of 18 and the coffee shops themselves are zealous in enforcing this rule because they know that being caught even accidentally breaking it will result in at least a closure of six months or, more probably in the current political climate, a permanent loss of their license.
Of course, the real reason the politicians pushed through this law is that, in cities as densely populated as Amsterdam, very few places are more than 350 meters from some sort of school and it meant that half of the city’s coffee shops faced immediate closure. In the context of Dutch public opinion, this was especially clever: the majority of Dutch people have a “live and let live” attitude, unlike the evangelical minority, and, if asked, would probably not support a law straightforwardly seeking to halve the number of coffee shops but, when it happens indirectly like this, they do not care enough to object strongly after the fact. Ingenious - if a minority is sufficiently passionate about their agenda, they can find a way to slip it past the apathetic majority.
In the case of the Red Light District, they cleverly persuaded the city’s liberal majority, the very people who had brought in the decriminalisation of prostitution as a way to protect women, that the existence of the Red Light District was now a driver of the trafficking of women - of course, prostitution will always be a problematic business, and the evangelicals knew that if they kept repeating unproven rumours of trafficking often enough, and kept reasserting equally unsubstantiated links to organised gangs of foreigners (at a time when the Dutch are more conflicted than ever about foreigners in their country), enough liberals would soften their support of the Red Light District to make its gradual closure possible. Be sure to read our shocking exposure of these tactics: “Sex Trafficking in Amsterdam - Separating the Facts from the Bullshit”.
They then started targeting individuals owners of the Red Light windows, again making allegations with no requirement to substantiate them, forcing them to either sell their property or confiscating it outright. They then gave the properties to radically different businesses, at greatly subsidised rents, in order to break up the natural flow of the Red Light District - one of the saddest aspects of the ever-shrinking Red Light District is that tourists
Certain politicians with a serious vendetta against the Red Light District and prostitution in general have stated on record that, if the current tactics don’t do the job of wiping it out, they will consider adopting the Swedish and Norwegian approach of criminalising the customers.
The Swedish and Norwegian approach is based on a rather extreme feminist interpretation that ALL prostitution is an act of abuse against the prostitute and, therefore, the customer should be arrested. This neat spin gives the impression that they are helping women but, of course, in their own grim imitation of centuries of male oppression against women, they are deciding what women can do with their own bodies and ruling out the possibility that a woman might decide that she wishes to make her living in this way.
So, what if you are visiting in the years to come, how will you know whether or not it is still legal then? Well, it is very simple: if they criminalise the customers, the Red Light District and other forms of open, above-ground prostitution will simply disappear. If you are in Amsterdam and they still have at least some windows, well, that means that the zealots did not end up managing to push things quite as far as the Swedish and the Norwegians, and you can proceed with a spring in your step and the joyful knowledge that, for once, the bad guys did not win.
As of August 2014 the window count is as follows: Amsterdam main area- 296 windows, Singelgebied- 64, De Pijp- 41. Total Working Windows is around 401 approx.
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