Amsterdam: Coffee shop crack-down and red light restrictions? Great!



Returning from a long but enjoyable day of sightseeing to our hotel near Museum Square and thanking our amiable host for his excellent advice which formed the basis for our wanderings, the conversation turned to the current (summer 2010) state of the tourism industry. Had the economic downturn and rise in the value of the Euro made a dent in visitor numbers? Not so much, came the reply. But there had been changes to the type of visitor Amsterdam was attracting. Fewer lager louts, more culture-vultures. He explained with unmistakeable   satisfaction that rising costs had drastically reduced the number of stag night parties hitting the red light area and cannabis shops.

Yes, I see his point. I mean it’s all a bit pathetic, isn’t it?

These stag weekends have been a real blight on the city for years and had also began to spoil other great cities like Riga and Tallinn with their combination of cheap flights and even cheaper booze. But fast forward to the present day and there are further grounds to celebrate for those like us at Grown-up Travel Guide who love Amsterdam, but will not mourn the decline of the coffee shop (at least for foreigners) nor the scaling back of the red light district.

And we do love Amsterdam, sleaze and all.  

Indeed we do. And having been there seven times since 1989 we’ve also seen hugely positive changes. New legislation to ban non-Dutch residents from cannabis-selling coffee shops in southern Netherlands should be enforced no later than May 1 next year, the Dutch justice ministry said last week. Amsterdam won’t be far behind if they get their way. The move, which coffee shop owners say would harm an industry that has been a draw for travellers for years, was taken to protect locals against the nuisance of drug tourism and criminality, authorities said.

A draw for a certain type of traveller, perhaps…

That’s right. Dutch residents have long complained about the impact of drug tourism including pollution, traffic jams, noise at night and a proliferation of drug dealers on the streets. The Dutch government also plans to introduce a policy requiring coffee shops to be at least 350 meters away from schools, to keep drug consumption away from children.

Okay, what about the red light district?

Well in addition, Project 1012 (named after the city post code for the red light district) is a ten-year plan that aims to significantly reduce the number of “window brothels” and coffee shops. Now more than three years into the project the results are starting to show.

A specific goal is to get rid of 200 of the 480 window brothels, and already the city has succeeded in closing down half of these. By implementing compulsory purchase and a new zoning initiatives another 100 will be removed. Nearly a third of the coffee shops in the red light district will also close for business.

The City Council is determined to tackle the sex, drugs and money laundering industry in the red light district which is said to be run by the Ukrainian and Bulgarian mafia. The rise in cases of human trafficking of girls for the sex industry has added to fears that the traditional tolerant attitude may be in need of a reset.

And now the times are indeed, a-changing. The rather sleazy area of Warmoesstraat has recently seen a baker, florist and a deli open for business.

Could there be a much clearer sign of progress?

Don’t get all sarky on us now…The man in charge of Project 1012, Lodewijk Asscher, explains that “there had been warning signs starting in the 1990s that organised crime was basically using the area as its living room. Amsterdam has always been a free and tolerant city, but we want to place more emphasis on museums and culture. We want to attract more families and encourage visitors to spend an extra night here.”

This is an important point; the majority of tourists spend no more than two nights in the city and most stag parties contribute little to the city’s formal economy.

And Amsterdam is a great place to take the family, as you never tire of telling me…

Absolutely. Our (then) 8-year old loved it. When launching the plan Asscher also announced that “the days that riff-raff have been allowed to control the most beautiful section of the city’s historic centre are over.”

The red light district’s canals, such as Achterburgwal and Oudezijds Voorburgwal are lined with beautiful seventeenth-century townhouses. They have not suffered from the commercial excesses of Damrak, despite the sex industry’s presence.

A local entrepreneur and former DJ, Michiel Kleiss pretty much nails it, in our opinion. Although he likes the “edge” of the red light district he feels the area “could do with a better mix”.

Nicely put.

“Gentrifying the red light district is not the intention,” says Kleiss. “But things have got out of hand. The British should be welcome here in the neighbourhood to have a drink, but stag parties are not only tacky and sometimes overwhelming, they are also a waste of a great medieval city.”

So all’s going well then?

Almost. There are dissenting voices, and not just from whining stoners and would-be stag parties. According to an official audit carried out on Project 2012 by the Netherlands Court of Audit (Algemene Rekenkamer) it is impossible to determine whether Amsterdam’s efforts to reduce the number of window brothels and coffeeshops in the city’s red light district will lead to less crime, nor is it possible to measure whether Amsterdam’s overall approach to clean up the area will lead to the desired result.

Nevertheless Asscher says that with the “thorough investigation” and the recommendations of the Court in hand he intends to continue working “to fight crime and human trafficking in the red light district.”

Have we got it all wrong? Do you think these moves will damage Amsterdam as a destination? Will they destroy the very soul of this ‘sin city’? Let us know by adding your comments below.


Andy Higgs
Andy Higgs

Not meaning to brag, but here goes. I can say I’m a travel expert and have spoken at multiple travel conferences and trade shows.

I enjoy travelling all over the world but my big passion is Africa.

I also own and run The Grown-up Travel Company as a travel designer creating personalised African itineraries for experienced adventurers

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