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Walking tours in Amsterdam's Red Light District in jeopardy

CNN Travel meets Martine and Louise Fokkens, recently retired sex workers.

Posted: Jun 7, 2019 3:40 PM
Updated: Jun 7, 2019 3:40 PM

Walking tours of the Red Light District in Amsterdam are set to cease come January 1, 2020. According to the translated official statement from the Dutch government, "Tours along the prostitution windows cause a lot of bustle in the Red Light District and are not respectful towards sex workers."

The Dutch government wants to stop the tours as they believe the area is suffering from overtourism and that walking tours of the neighborhood exploit the lingerie-clad sex workers in neon-lit windows as tourist attractions.

The Prostitution Information Center (PIC) doesn't agree and hopes to stave off the attempt to shut down their community-led walking tours.

The PIC is a small sex worker-led nonprofit community space centrally located in the Red Light District. Founded in 1994 by Mariska Majoor, a former sex worker, the organization's mission is to inform the public about the realities of the industry and the concerns of its workers.

When asked about the name of the organization, particularly the use of the term prostitution, Nadia van der Linde, board chair of the PIC, tells CNN Travel that in the Netherlands, because "prostitution or sex work was not illegal and already, more or less, recognized as work, there wasn't as much negative stigma around the term prostitution itself." In fact, explains van der Linde, "the sex work that takes place in the window brothels is often still referred to as prostitution, in Dutch."

The PIC project is operated by sex workers who aim to generate respect for their community while providing intel to curious members of the public about the safety measures and strict regulations that protect sex workers.

Walking tours of the Red Light District

CNN Travel spoke with Mariana, a sex worker in the Red Light District who prefers to use an alias, about her reaction to the government shutting down walking tours of the area.

"Tour groups can be harmful if they stand in front of your window, take your picture, point at you or if the guide spews a bunch of nonsense that isn't true about the work. But the groups can be good when the guides educate the tourists about our work and dispel myths about us to fight against stigma." Mariana says that some tourists even become clients.

For over a decade, the PIC has organized educational walking tours in which former sex workers lead small groups around the Red Light District. They once hosted around 22,000 visitors annually but attendance has reduced in recent years due to steep competition from commercial tour companies. Unlike other tours of the Red Light District, the PIC experience is an informative and heartfelt tour rooted in respect for sex workers and the community.

In Amsterdam, the Red Light District is near the harbor. Sex has been traded in the neighborhood since the 1200s as sailors often came ashore to meet with women. From the 1500s to the 1800s sex work was illegal and the trade was forced into hiding. In 2000 sex work in clubs and brothels was legalized. Street sex work remains banned, hence the sex workers in windows around the Red Light District. The neighborhood is safe to explore and has a wide array of restaurants, bars, coffee shops and museums located along one of Amsterdam's famous canals.

On the PIC tour, participants learn about the history of sex work, often referred to as "the oldest profession on Earth," from industry experts who share sage insight and earnest candor. The lecture provides a unique perspective as former sex workers share their stories, discuss the transformation of the Red Light District over the decades, and explain the social conditions of people working in the sex industry.

Guests visit Belle, the first monument ever erected to honor sex workers. Majoor worked with artist Els Rijerse to create this bronze statue of a woman standing in a doorway.

Belle has an inscription which reads, "Respect sex workers all over the world," and stands in front of Oude Kerk, the oldest church in Amsterdam. "Belle is an important place for sex workers to gather, find mutual support and solidarity, and gather in activism. We do this annually on December 17, International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers," van der Linde says.

Open dialogue is encouraged during the tour. No questions are off limits as long as the queries are rooted in respect. There's also no minimum age for the tour, though PIC says participants tend to be at least 15 or 16.

If younger members are in a group, PIC modifies the story as necessary. Photos are not allowed on the PIC Red Light District tour to respect the sex workers and their clients' privacy. The tours are available every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 5-6.30 p.m. for €17.50 (around $19).

Fighting for sex workers' rights

Funds raised by the tours and any donations are directly channeled back into the charity. Earnings are allocated towards rent, paying tour guides, and financial support for the on-going efforts to defend sex workers' rights. The PIC provides services for the people involved in the industry to help them become aware of their legal rights through their Dutch sex workers' union, Proud.

"To stop exploitation in the sex industry, give sex workers labor rights and recognize their human rights so they can seek justice for themselves. Teach people to respect all sex workers, regardless of age, gender, race, nationality, etc. If people continue to think about all sex workers as female victims they'll be overlooking trans and male sex workers. If sex workers are recognized as legal laborers who have rights and must be respected, then people will less be inclined to exploit or abuse them," says Mariana.

To further protect sex workers in the Red Light District from leerers who take unwanted photographs, the "No Photos or Filming" campaign was recently launched. As part of the campaign, coasters, window stickers and street decals have been distributed throughout the neighborhood which feature a hand blocking the lens of a camera along with the statement "respect sex workers" and "no photos or filming of the sex workers."

According to the PIC Facebook page, "Sex workers welcome all tourists but are sick and tired of being photographed or filmed. So dear tourists, look at them through your eyes, not through the camera."

Amsterdam, with its City in Balance policy, is a very open-minded place, but debauchery is frowned upon. The government has tried to reduce the number of rowdy visitors -- especially disrespectful stag parties -- by implementing regulations to combat overtourism. Fines have increased for public intoxication and urination and must be paid on the spot or else the offender will be taken down to the police station.

The Red Light District isn't the only area in Amsterdam seeing changes. The world famous "I Amsterdam" sign has been relocated outside of the city center. New hotels and souvenir shops are no longer being built.

Learn the truth about the Red Light District while you can

The PIC has yet to learn about whether they'll still be legally allowed to run their educational tours that directly support sex workers. "We hope that non-profit, community-based organizations with a mission to support the neighborhood and workers in the neighborhood may be considered differently from the many large commercial tour companies," says van der Linde. She says that PIC believes the walking tours "are important in our struggle to fight stigma and promote respect for sex workers."

For now, a government-imposed curfew on tours has been put into effect. Groups must leave the Red Light District by 7 p.m. Previously tours were allowed to end at 11 p.m. Tour guides who break the regulations will be fined the equivalent of $213.

The information center will remain open even if the tours are banned. People are always welcome to visit the PIC which is also a café with coffee, snacks, and a massive library of reading materials about sex work. If you're visiting Amsterdam soon don't miss out on the PIC walking tour before it's possibly gone for good.

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