Amsterdam pays heavy price for selling out to sex and drugs
Amsterdam Letter: Venice is an oasis of taste and calm compared with this ‘adult Disneyland’
A prostitute waits for clients behind her window in the red light district of Amsterdam. The sex industry in the Dutch city turns over, conservatively, between €80 million and €100 million a year, but it also supports an illegal underbelly of gangsterism, abuse and human trafficking. Photograph: Anoek de Groot/AFP/Getty Images
I am a big fan of Venice. Of all the cities I’ve visited, it is the most magical. No cars, bustling waterways, ornate bridges, great art, proper coffee, the vaporetto along the Grand Canal and out across the lagoon to the Lido. It’s a world apart. Why wouldn’t any other city want to be like that?
Which may seem like a strange opening, I admit, for a Letter from . . . Amsterdam. But what prompted the thought was a warning from one of the city’s senior politicians the other day that he didn’t want the Dutch capital to “go the way of Venice” – his not-so-cryptic code for “to the dogs”.
Boudewijn Oranje is chairman of Amsterdam’s borough council, and what he meant was that he didn’t want to see an ancient, physically beautiful city so overrun by tourists that – apart from in the dead of winter perhaps – it’s difficult to fight your way around its historic centre. Well, very laudable but far too late, I’m afraid, Oranje. Amsterdam made its fateful decision decades ago. It wanted the cash. It chose sex, drugs, beer and takeaways. Now it’s living with the indigestible consequences.
Oasis of calm
While Venice certainly has its problems – rampant tourism, the flight of its native population, worsening subsidence and criminal pollution of its lagoon among them – it remains an oasis of calm and taste compared to the Dutch capital’s most excessive tourist wastelands. Arrive at Amsterdam’s iconic central railway station, designed in the 19th century by Pierre Cuypers, who also brought us the wonderful Rijksmuseum, and you’re confronted with the arrow-straight and potentially very impressive Damrak which links it to Dam Square and the royal palace.
This is where the rot starts with depressing immediacy. It’s a profusion of cheap souvenir shops, kebab joints, cannabis cafes, museums of torture and unalluring sex shops – utter commercial predictability with no reference at all to the badly needed art of urban planning.
If you’re looking for pub after pub hammering out loud music until the small hours, then disgorging their international contingent of drunks to take their chances on the streets, just nip across the road any evening to the famous red light district – known in Dutch as De Wallen.
Prostitution is legal here, and the sex industry turns over, conservatively, between €80 million and €100 million a year. It contributes mightily to the city’s tax coffers. But it also supports a horrific illegal underbelly of gangsterism, abuse and human trafficking, mainly of young girls.
Soft drugs such as cannabis can be bought legally in “coffee shops” by relatively inexperienced youngsters who often don’t know when to stop. That’s a thriving business too.
Perhaps as a consequence, police warned last year about a worrying increase in the number of young people being injured or killed trying to “fly” out their hotel windows. In 2010, a Brazilian student was left partially paralysed after an Australian tourist landed on him in the street.
So when Oranje broaches the subject of why central Amsterdam, this specific district, inexplicably fails to attract the right sort of tourist, he’s on less-than-solid ground
. . . “When people like you or I visit the city, nobody has a problem,” he told daily newspaper Trouw . “But there are lots of tourists who view Amsterdam as some sort of adult Disneyland. There are tourists who come for stag and hen parties, and wander around in hats shaped like enormous penises. That does create problems.”
It certainly does create problems, for the police, for the emergency services, and not least for the dwindling number of local people who defy the encroaching theme park in a city where 29 per cent of all visitors – the largest single group – are between 21 and 30 years old.
It creates problems, but it generates a lot of money too. Amsterdam chose the money and with the money come the problems. To blame the city’s ills on “the wrong kind of tourist” suggests not just wilful naivety but the kind of institutional denial that renders big organisations incapable of tackling their own endemic failings.
Luckily, there are many extraordinarily beautiful parts of Amsterdam too, well away from the tourist tracts – where those less-cultured visitors never seem to rampage. I wonder why.