Amsterdam tries to dim the glare on its red-light district
By Claire Moses
It has been a goal sought after by Amsterdam for years: dissuading rowdy, brawling tourists from overtaking the red-light district.
The Dutch city announced new measures this spring to crack down on noise and substance abuse, which residents have long complained about in the district. But sex workers, bartenders and entrepreneurs say the new rules haven’t been effective in making the area safer or quieter.
Now the city is pushing a more drastic move: setting up a location for legal prostitution in another neighborhood to spread out demand — an idea that has set off mixed reactions from the industry.
The new rules introduced this spring set earlier closing times for bars (2 a.m., and no new entry after 1 a.m.); stopped sex workers from working after 3 a.m. instead of 6 a.m.; and banned marijuana smoking in the street. But many sex workers say the regulations make them less safe because they have less time to earn enough money to cover the cost of their rooms, pressuring them to accept clients they would otherwise turn down.
“The problem isn’t between 3 and 6 o’clock in the morning,” said Phoebe, 29, a coordinator at the Prostitution Information Center in the red-light district who asked to be identified only by her first name because she is also a sex worker.
“Sex workers are being asked to compromise on their safety and well-being,” she said.
Bar owners are unhappy, too, saying that the earlier closing times mean they are missing out on thousands of euros in revenue per month and that rowdy customers are still a reality.
“There aren’t fewer problems,” said Bartho Makkinga, who works at a bar in the neighborhood. “For the real troublemakers, there’s no difference.”
On top of being known for window prostitution and sex shops, the red-light district is one of Amsterdam’s oldest neighborhoods and full of the city’s signature canals, cobblestoned streets and narrow homes. To keep tourists in check, the city has enforced a one-way system for pedestrians by closing off the bridges that cross the canals and adding the presence of so-called hosts in red vests who answer questions and inform people of the rules.
But “it’s always busy, and there’s always chaos,” said Thomas de Rijk, one of the hosts, on a recent evening.
Efforts to decrease nuisance and criminal activity in the area are not new. In 2019, the city banned tours of the neighborhood. And in March, Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands, began a campaign aimed at British men ages 18 to 35, telling them to “stay away.” The sale of alcohol is also banned in shops after 4 p.m. from Thursday to Sunday.
“The red-light district has become such a symbol that you’d almost forget that it’s a residential area,” said Femke Halsema, Amsterdam’s mayor. The neighborhood has always been a center for trade, art and small businesses. The new rules and a place for legal prostitution elsewhere in the city are supposed to bring back those original functions, she said.
For decades, the city has tried to make the neighborhood more livable for locals, including battling a heroin epidemic in the 1970s and now today’s excessive tourism, said Tim Verlaan, an urban historian at the University of Amsterdam.
Cheap flights and the expansion of Amsterdam’s airport have played a part in increasing the number of visitors and large groups of young people coming over for bachelor parties or drinking weekends. “It’s very easy to get here from anywhere in the world,” Verlaan said.
Last year, Amsterdam saw about 20 million visitors, according to figures provided by the city. It has about 900,000 residents and is on track to have 30 million annual tourists by 2030, said Halsema.
That’s why she has sought to establish an erotic center for legal prostitution in another part of Amsterdam to help relieve the neighborhood of the crowds.
While many sex workers have said they do not want to leave the area, Halsema said a new center would be safer, offer more security, encourage more people to work legally and allow them to rent rooms by the hour, something that is not currently possible.
“An erotic center doesn’t mean that there won’t be prostitution in the red-light district,” Halsema said. “It does mean that the red-light district has to lose its appeal as the most important attraction for tourists.”
Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, but it is not allowed everywhere or without a permit. It is illegal to practice sex work at home, in a hotel room or in the street, for example. It is unclear how many sex workers are active in Amsterdam, and experts are wary of estimates. The red-light district has about 250 active windows.
The local government is planning to decide on a final location early next year. But the erotic center, which would not be funded by the city, is still far from becoming a reality. Some people are adamantly opposed, and the city cannot force sex workers to move to an erotic center.
Moving sex workers to a different neighborhood would only mean “out of sight, out of mind for a lot of people,” Phoebe said.
Others see the idea as a way to support those in the industry.
“The total number of legal places to work must increase, not decrease,” said Lyle Muns, a sex worker and activist.
Even before it was made legal, prostitution was associated with the red-light district for hundreds of years because of its original proximity to the port of Amsterdam. The commercial nature of the neighborhood and of its window prostitution, which has helped make it such an international draw, originated in the late 1960s, Verlaan said.
Halsema said she wanted the area to remain a livable community and attract more residents. “We have to give back the night to the people who live there,” she said. “Because people really couldn’t sleep because of yelling and screaming.”
While Christa Arens, a red-light district resident who was born and raised in Amsterdam, agreed with that assessment, she said the noise was simply part of the neighborhood, which she described as a small village where everyone knows one another. The rowdiness is part of the character, Arens said, just like the bars and the sex workers.
“It’s been around for hundreds of years,” she said. “Why move it?”