Red-light district feels the pinch
Amsterdam’s red-light district seems not to be immune from the recession: sex shops are struggling, brothels are empty and prostitutes are being pursued for back taxes
IT’S SEEDY BUT relatively safe, which is why Amsterdam’s red-light district, one of the most popular sex-tourism haunts in the world, generates almost €1 billion a year. At least it used to. Now sex shops are struggling, brothels are becalmed, and the city authorities have started chasing registered prostitutes for backtaxes.
Not that you’d know it. On the surface, it’s business as usual in De Wallen, as it’s known in Dutch. On a sunny August evening, the network of alleys covering 6,500sq m of prime real estate in the oldest part of the centre is packed with tourists of all nationalities. The difference is that while punters may be looking, these days far fewer are parting with their cash.
Their newfound reluctance, it seems, has nothing to do with moral scruples. In a cash-strapped world of budget flights and budget hotels, it’s the economy, stupid.
Hanni Jagtman is a businesswoman who knows the Dutch sex industry inside out. In a world dominated by men – with a richly deserved reputation for gangsterism, people trafficking and violence – she opened her first sex shop and mail-order business, Mail and Female, in 1988, and has built a successful chain over the past 25 years. This is the worst slump she can remember.
“One of the reasons Amsterdam’s red-light district has survived is because of its economic value to the city; we should have no illusions about that,” Jagtman says. “And, just as other parts of the Dutch economy are being hit by the global downturn and the euro crisis, so is the sex business. It’s inevitable. I suppose this is the ultimate in discretionary spending – so we’re particularly exposed, so to speak.”
The recession, she believes, is a turning point for the industry. “It’s disastrous. It’s so serious that we must look at where we are going and decide where the future lies, or call it a day. Tastes have changed as well, so maybe in some ways we’ve failed to keep up with the times.”
As you might expect, Jagtman is not shy about spelling out the problem areas. “We have no control over the economy, but we have control over what we sell. Sales of sex toys, DVDs and edible underwear – it used to be a particularly big seller – are all down sharply as a result of tighter spending and competition from the internet.