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Sex, drugs and tourism: Amsterdam's 'stay away' campaign targets troublesome visitors

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Amsterdam (CNN) — It’s barely dusk on a cold Saturday afternoon in early December. But Amsterdam’s Red Light District is already starting to heat up.

Bursts of lively cheers ring out from crowded bars during World Cup soccer matches. Puffs of marijuana are escaping from cafes. Hordes of tourists roam the narrow streets, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a car or even a bicycle to pass.

A few men stop to ask lingerie-clad sex workers posing behind brothel windows to talk about their services. But the vast majority just stare or gawk as they walk around.

At an establishment along the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal, a middle-aged man in jeans and a baseball cap takes a picture of his friend against the window, despite signs prohibiting photography. They swap places for another photo, then leave, laughing.

It’s just another day in one of the world’s most infamous tourist hubs. But if the city authorities are successful, De Wallen, as it is known locally, will eventually attract visitors who come to appreciate its unique heritage, architecture and culture instead of its vices.

In the latest move in an ongoing attempt to improve Amsterdam’s image, reduce rowdy visitor behavior and improve livability and safety for residents, city officials recently announced policy proposals “to limit the growth and nuisance of tourism” and fight against overpopulation.

This latest set of proposed measures includes initiatives targeting inconvenient tourist behavior, such as limiting the number of river cruises; implementing earlier closing times for bars, clubs and window brothels; and the banning of cannabis smoking in certain parts of the city.

Another part of the initiative aims to “actively discourage international visitors intending to ‘go wild’ in Amsterdam”, which has been dubbed the ‘stay away’ campaign.

“Some companies are abusing the image of Amsterdam to sell it as a place of ‘unlimited possibilities’,” Deputy Mayor Sofyan Mbarki said in a statement. As a result, some visitor groups view it as a city where anything goes. This type of tourism, as well as offers specifically targeting these groups, are not considered desirable by the city executive.

The policy proposals, which were announced on November 30 and are part of a broader initiative to tackle mass tourism, are due for a vote by the city council on December 21 before being signed into law. But some in Amsterdam’s tourism sector are already on board.

“We should get rid of the image of sex, drugs and rock and roll,” says Remco Groenhuijzen, general manager of the Mövenpick Hotel Amsterdam City Center. “It’s not bad that we have a somewhat marginal city. But it’s not free [pass] come here and misbehave.

“The Right Balance”

A ban on the sale of alcohol was introduced in Amsterdam's red light district earlier this year.

A ban on the sale of alcohol was introduced in Amsterdam’s red light district earlier this year.

Hollandse Hoogte/Shutterstock.com

Groenhuijzen says the majority of members of Luxury Hotels of Amsterdam, an association of 24 four- and five-star hotels of which he is president, generally approve of the city’s attempt to polish its reputation through various measures that try to respond (and prevent ) the unsavory consequences of misbehaving tourists.

“As hoteliers, we believe that a city should be livable, because that’s where it’s nice to come here,” says Groenhuijzen. This has always been the strength of Amsterdam, to have the right balance.

But in recent years, especially as post-pandemic tourism has come back with a vengeance, overtourism has tipped that balance alarmingly, especially in heavily visited areas like De Wallen.

In 2023, Amsterdam is expected to exceed 18 million overnight visitors, a figure almost 22 times larger than its population of around 822,000. By 2025, this number could reach 23 million, in addition to 24 to 25 million visits per day. When the number of overnight visitors reaches 18 million, the city council is “forced to intervene” based on a 2021 ordinance called “Amsterdam tourism in balance.”

During an interview at the cheerful downtown offices of Amsterdam & Partners, the city’s public-private marketing association, director Geerte Udo estimates that around 10-15% of the tourism industry d Amsterdam is located in the red light district. But combine disruptive tourists with a problem of overcrowding, and on weekends “it’s really, really unlivable in the old city center these days,” Udo says, noting that some streets are particularly problematic.

Udo described the city’s tourism restart as a multi-layered approach with specific campaigns designed to target unique groups of visitors, while rebranding Amsterdam as a destination whose attractions go far beyond brothels and coffeehouses. cannabis – while making the city safer and more livable for residents and more attractive for visitors.

A specific measure, for example, would target day visitors, many of whom come from the Netherlands, as well as neighboring countries including Germany, and sleep in their cars instead of staying in hotels.

When discussing plans, Udo often avoids using the term “Red Light District”. “It’s kind of become a theme park name for a neighborhood,” she explains. And if we want to change the perception, you shouldn’t keep talking about the red light district if you’d rather have the red lights off.

Erotic center still pending

Tourists throng the neighborhood in this pre-pandemic photo taken in March 2019.

Tourists throng the neighborhood in this pre-pandemic photo taken in March 2019.

Peter Dejong/AP

Those infamous lights are, for now, still on. But, in perhaps the most controversial aspect of the city’s tourism restart, they could fade over the coming year depending on the status of a proposed “erotic hub” that would displace brothels from window in a single building located on the outskirts of the city.

The project was initially envisioned as a “erotic hotel” by the mayor of Amsterdam Femke Halsema, elected in 2018 as the first female mayor of the Dutch capital.
He won the approval of some groups, including various political parties, and was strongly criticized by others, among others. sex workers.

They claim that removing the visibility of the windows makes their job less safe and that placing the center in a remote area of ​​the city, away from well-known tourist areas, would harm their business.

Jeroen de Jong, COO of Amsterdam Red Light District Tourswhose app offers self-guided tours of the neighborhood (in-person tours have been banned early 2020), predicted that the erotic center “will fail and become a financial disaster”.

De Jong also noted that there are a few other areas around Amsterdam with window brothels. “Sex workers already have the choice of working in different locations in the capital,” he said by email.

No one can guess when the multi-story 15,000 square foot center, which has a commissioned architect on board, will officially open. Following fierce opposition to the first eight sites proposedthe city has delayed the decision and may expand the list to include additional sites, Dutch newspaper Het Parol reported.
Nevertheless, Halsema remains determined. “I hope it is possible to create an erotic center that has a certain class and distinction and that is not a place where only petty criminals, the most vulnerable women, but also people who don’t are not ashamed to go,” she told the outlet. . DutchNews.NL this autumn.

‘Leave him’

Dutch brothels reopened after Covid in July 2020.

Dutch brothels reopened after Covid in July 2020.

Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

The future of the red light district may be unclear, but for now, business is business as usual. And for many workers and customers who frequent adult novelty stores, cannabis cafes, porn shows, and other neighborhood businesses, that’s how it should be.

“[Government] wants to regress everything, move everything, return all these luxury homes to the rich,” says Linda Nap, an employee of a sex shop in De Wallen, in the midst of a constant stream of customers.

According to de Jong, instead of spending money on anti-tourism campaigns, the city would be much better served by increasing its police presence in the red light district – a common request among neighborhood residents and entrepreneurs. “A frequently heard complaint…is, ‘We don’t want more rules, we want more law enforcement and police,'” he says.

Nap, who says many of his clients are sex workers, says the city’s continued measures will rob the neighborhood of its unique spirit, which, like the profession it was built around, has thrived for centuries. . And while she understands residents’ frustrations with overcrowding and noise, she says the realities of life in the neighborhood have always been very visible.

“[The sex industry] has been here since the 1600s – people don’t come here just for the canals and the tulips,” says Nap. ” Let it go. If you have a problem, then move somewhere else.”

(Top image: De Wallen district in Amsterdam. Sylvain Sonnet/The Image Bank Unreleased/Getty Images)

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