Part of being a respectful tourist is letting people do their dang jobs.
Amsterdam is a world-famous tourist destination. But so many tourists have been flocking there to photograph sex workers in its famous red-light district that the city has taken legal action. In order to mitigate the deluge, Amsterdam will be banning all tours of its famous Red Light District starting January 1. And we think that’s a really good idea.
“It is outdated to treat sex workers as a tourist attraction.” —Udo Kock, Deputy Mayor of Amsterdam
Tourists can be a nuisance. Multiply that nuisance by the estimated 1,000+ tours a week that make their way through the district 20 tourists at a time and you have a problem. Not only are the throngs of tourists in the Red Light District a microcosm of the over-tourism issue currently facing the Dutch capital, but they’re interfering with the working conditions of the women who work there.
So many tourists crowd the central square to get a peek inside the glass doors where women perform legal sex work that paying customers often opt to skip over the district to avoid the crowds. Tourists also disrupt their day by taking photos of them even though signs posted near sex workers’ windows make it clear that photography is not allowed and some tourists have had their cameras confiscated or broken.
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The new law is the city’s way of saying “enough is enough.” As Amsterdam’s deputy mayor, Udo Kock told The New York Times, “It is outdated to treat sex workers as a tourist attraction.” So now, while individuals will still be able to visit the red light district and its sex workers, large tour groups will be forbidden by law next year.
People Aren’t Tourist Attractions
Think about it: you wouldn’t want someone snapping blatantly taking a picture of you at your office as you chow down on a Lean Cuisine. So why would it be OK for you to photograph a person who’s at work just because it looks different than yours? Cultural differences make a destination what it is, but they’re not an excuse to treat someone like a photo-op.
This kind of tourism, where third parties position people (who did not opt-in to being gawked at) as a tourist attraction unto themselves, isn’t just a problem in Amsterdam. There’s a whole industry of “poverty” or “slum tourism,” where operators take tourists through impoverished communities in order to gawk at the people who live there. Some argue that such tours raise awareness, but it’s unclear and unlikely that the people being visited are consenting partners in these tours.
If you’re interested in traveling with a tour and don’t want to be part of this not-entirely-consensual type of tourism, seek out ethical operators that make a point to steer clear of things like poverty tours.
When Is it Okay to Take Photos of Someone?
Generally, if you’re going to see performers at a venue that explicitly allows for photography you’re probably in the clear. And if you’re not sure—ask! (Actually, go ahead and ask if you are sure, it’s just polite!)
Some places have made asking first the law. In 2015, Angkor Wat “banned” tourists taking selfies with monks. But really what they banned was tourists taking photos with monks who hadn’t consented to having their picture taken. The rule states that if you want to take a picture with a monk, that you simply be respectful and ask permission first.
And if you find yourself in a scenario that you’re not sure how to navigate, there’s the first policy we all learn: the Golden Rule. Read the room. Ask yourself if you would feel comfortable being approached, having your picture taken, or otherwise having your daily routine disrupted if you were in that persons’ shoes, and then act accordingly.