Amsterdam’s famous red light district gets into the festive spirit much like anywhere else in the Netherlands, with local cafes decked out in Christmas trees and serving mulled wine.
In front of strip club Casa Rosso is a huge cardboard cutout of the venue’s signature pink elephant flanked by bikini-clad women and mistletoe, wishing customers a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
The erotic museum features a mannequin dressed in a Santa outfit riding a sex toy bicycle, while the Pure Lust erotic store has shopfront windows brimming with fake snow, perfectly-wrapped presents and mannequins wearing lingerie. Two metres away on the opposite side of the alley, the windows house real women soliciting the visitors who are passing through.
Amsterdam is establishing itself as a major winter destination – in December inner city hotel bookings grew 10.4% last year according to the city’s promotions agency Amsterdam Marketing’s, and foreign arrivals at Schiphol airport jumped 11.6%. Yet sex industry workers and business owners in the city’s red light district say the Christmas period remains one of the quietest times of year in terms of business.
Luis Delgado, a Mexican sociology student visiting the area on the Friday night before Christmas, said the red light district in winter wasn’t quite the same.
‘I was here once before, two years ago in summer,’ he said. ‘I don’t remember a lot, as you can imagine! It was warmer, the mood was totally different, there was much more life. I think now it is a bit quieter.’
One Australian tourist shivering as he walked down a canal seemed to agree, yelling: ‘I think I’ll come back in summer!’
Tour companies are nevertheless keen to push the area as a Christmas destination.
Mokum Events sells a ‘Christmas delights in the red light district of Amsterdam’ tour promising to immerse tourists in the area’s ‘beautiful decorations’.
‘Santa tells you everything about the three P’s of the redl ight district: prostitutes, pimps and blushing pedestrians,’ goes the website pitch, which also promises mulled wine and hot chocolate with whipped cream.
The Amsterdam Red Light District Tour company is another to encourage tourists to consider a yuletide visit. ‘Yes, Amsterdam’s red light district is open during Christmas,’ the website reads.
‘Most of the prostitutes who work here come from Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary and they usually work during Christmas. For them, Christmas can be a good time to work because there is less competition which means more customers. Most of the (Dutch) prostitutes who have family here in the Netherlands, do not work during Christmas.’
The company claims that only 30 of the 278 window brothels are closed during Christmas, telling DutchNews.nl that this figure was based on their own observations of the area.
On the Friday night before Christmas, most windows did indeed fill up, and the dozen sex workers who spoke to DutchNews.nl were all migrants. They unanimously agreed that it is a bad time for business, saying clients were spending their time with family and their money on presents.
Maria, a sex worker from Romania, said: ‘Christmas is always a bit quiet – this time of year the clients are with family.’
She dismissed the idea that the decorations were part of a bid to make the area more of a Christmas attraction. ‘Not everything is for clients and tourists. We decorate it a little bit just for us – it is Christmas, it’s a beautiful time of year. We like it to look nice.’
According to Hungarian sex worker Angyalka, extra winter tourism doesn’t win her customers: ‘Half the girls go home for Christmas, so that is helpful, but it is so slow out there it doesn’t help that much – all the tourists can make the clients too embarrassed to visit.’
Esta Steyn from Stop the Traffik Netherlands said the organisation makes a special effort to reach out to women during this time of year – although she stressed there is less human trafficking in the highly-regulated Amsterdam red light district compared to other Dutch sex work hubs.
Presents and a chat
‘Our partner organisations around the world visit [red light districts] during Christmas and let them know they are loved, give presents and having a chat,’ she said.
She said she used to hear stories of men taking the opportunity to visit a sex worker while their partners were distracted by Christmas shopping, but said she was not sure whether Amsterdam’s growing winter tourism boom would provide sex workers more business.
‘I hear that they make less money because all the tourists scare away people who buy sex,’ she said.
‘It is appalling to see people acting as if they are watching animals in the zoo, taking pictures and laughing at them. I think this attitude is part of why we let human trafficking go on in the sex industry – we don’t see them as human. It is not the Christmas spirit!’
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