AMSTERDAM The city of Amsterdam announced plans Monday to clean up its infamous "red light" district to fight human trafficking, money laundering and drug abuse and replace prostitutes' windows with upmarket boutiques.
Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen told a news conference he wanted to clamp down on the organized criminals whose growing influence has corrupted the historic city center.
"The romantic picture of the area is outdated if you see the abuses in the sex industry and that is why the council has to act," he said. "We don't want to get rid of prostitution but we do want to cut crime significantly."
Cohen said the city wanted to partially reverse the full legalization of prostitution introduced in the Netherlands in 2000 because it had not achieved its aim of bringing the profession out of the shadows and protecting sex workers.
The city wants to fight forced prostitution by clamping down on pimps and demanding that brothel owners, escort agencies and those who protect prostitutes apply for permits. It also wants the minimum age for prostitutes lifted to 21 from 18.
Prostitutes have plied their wares in the narrow alleys of the old center of Amsterdam for centuries. While they used to attract sailors and merchants in the city's heyday as the heart of a global trading empire, they are now a huge tourist draw.
Deputy mayor Lodewijk Asscher said the city wants to restore a number of historic buildings and reverse the decline of a large central area where brothels, sex clubs and the coffee shops that sell marijuana line the city's canals.
The neon-lit boudoirs that earn about 70 million euros ($100 million) a year should be limited to a few streets while drop-in centers for the homeless and drug addicts are relocated.
They will be replaced by chic apartments, upmarket shops, galleries and high-quality hotels and restaurants, Asscher said, adding that young fashion designers already plan to display their clothes in the windows of one former brothel from January.
The city is not afraid of losing the "boorish Brits" who currently throng the 800-year-old district, he said, adding they should be replaced by tourists wanting to see its churches.
"It will always be an exciting city with more freedom and more tolerance than elsewhere in the world," Asscher said.
"There will be other tourists and maybe more tourists but if you go here as a tourist you don't have to feel embarrassed or ashamed about what you see. You can be assured that those prostitutes who remain are not working involuntarily."
While legalization was supposed to turn prostitutes into self-employed taxpayers who did not need pimps for protection, the city said the industry is still dominated by criminals attracted by the 370 euros each woman can earn a day.
It has already withdrawn permits from dozens of sex businesses it accuses of links with organized crime including the Yab Yum, which calls itself the world's most exclusive men's club and is fighting closure in the courts.
Mariska Majoor, a former prostitute who now runs an information center in the red light district, said the city's plans could force hundreds of women out of work or underground.
"Where should the women go?" she asked. "They are only talking about criminals and gangsters. We're talking about a legal profession here ... They completely ignore the hundreds of women who are working of their own free will."
(Editing by Charles Dick)