Dutch by design

Published : Aug 29, 2008 00:00 IST

Amsterdam is rediscovering and re-branding itself by trying to do away with some dubious cultural practices.

recently in Amsterdam

GOOD men go to heaven, Bad men come to Amsterdam. This is one of the slogans emblazoned on T-shirts sold in the citys markets, thronged by tourists from across the globe during summer. Amsterdams notoriety has been of long standing and its citizens seem to revel in it. They proudly point out that their city boasts 175 cultures coexisting peacefully. Only New York, with more than 160 nationalities sharing living space, comes second as far as cosmopolitanism is concerned.

Amsterdam and Hollands reputation for broad-mindedness and liberalism suffered a few dents in recent years. The rise of right-wing parties and anti-immigrant phobia are illustrations of this. Islam-bashing was in vogue among a minority of intellectuals. The murder of the right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and the killing of the film-maker Theo van Gogh by a Moroccan immigrant in 2004 helped fuel this trend.

Theo van Gogh made a controversial film denigrating Islamic culture with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a liberal Dutch politician of Somali origin.

Hirsi Ali also received death threats after the film was released. She was expelled from the country after it was discovered that she had lied about important details while applying for Dutch citizenship. She has since been welcomed in the United States and her Islam-baiting columns appear regularly in the mainstream American media.

Government officials say that there has been a lot of introspection since those events and that now there is greater tolerance of other societies and non-Christian religions. On the streets of Amsterdam, one sees a lot of people in traditional Muslim garb. The city is dotted with restaurants serving only halal food.

The citys red light district continues to be a big tourist draw. Situated in the heart of the city, the area is dotted with coffee bars where people can legally buy and smoke marijuana. However, smoking tobacco inside bars is banned. If one is caught smoking, the minimum fine payable is Euro 50.

The Dutch have a knack for doing business with panache. The glass cages that advertised women in the red light district now have some competition. Early this year, the authorities handed over the keys of a chain of brothels to some of the countrys most famous designers. They have now set up shop in the area, displaying their wares. Some of them have started working and living there.

Today there are about 15 windows displaying the best of Dutch designer wear in the area.

The authorities were concerned about the inflow of illegal funds generated from the drug trade and from human trafficking. This had resulted in the proliferation of bars, hotels and supermarkets in the red light district with dubious ownership patterns.

The Red Light Fashion project, not surprisingly, is a controversial one. Some of the long-time residents of the area feel that the ongoing project is a ploy to subvert the culture of the area. Many of them are of the view that the authorities are intent on taking over the valuable real estate. Hands off the Red Light District is the message carried by posters seen everywhere in the area.

Officials of the administration say that they have no plans to get rid of the red light area but want it to blend with mainstream culture. They say that their initiative has stemmed criminal activities to a great extent.

The city authorities plan to add bookstores and cafes in the area. Part of the University of Amsterdam campus is adjacent to the red light district. Despite some teething troubles, mostly pertaining to the decrepit condition of their new lodgings, the young fashion designers have settled in. They now have smart studios and shops, which are attracting high-spending tourists from all over the world.

The fashion guys and the girls in the red light area now get along very well, said an official.

Mariette Hoitink, founder of the internationally known fashion agency HTNK, has a swank office in the red light district. Hoitink has been active behind the plans to refurbish the image of the area. She said that the move of the Amsterdam authorities to make affordable space available to young designers had helped many creative talents to make their mark in the intensely competitive world of fashion designing.

High-level fashion design in the red light district, she said, was an intriguing mix, making it an international hotspot for design tourists. The offerings of Red Light Fashion Amsterdam are extremely varied and, therefore, also very Dutch, said Hoitink.

The Dutch creative industry accounts for 5 per cent of the countrys gross domestic product. According to government officials, more than 60,000 people outside the country are employed in the fashion industry.

Holland focusses on design. Labour-intensive work is done in Asia, said one. China is the favoured manufacturing hub, but India, too, is catching up. Dutch designers are holding talks with Indian manufacturers. The Dutch textile industry claims that it has introduced tough laws against the use of child labour and other industrial malpractices. Amsterdam is eager to catch up with other European cities such as London, Berlin and Paris in attracting Indian companies to set up base. Already four top Indian companies Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, Wipro Technologies and Cognizant Technology Solutions are located in Amsterdams new business district.

Amsterdam has a long business tradition. The first-ever registered stock exchange was established in Holland, three centuries ago. The city occupies a strategic position in Europe and has a skilled and multilingual workforce. Eighty per cent of the workforce is Anglophone.

Amsterdam even has a cricket club. Forty per cent of the population has a college degree. The cost of living is lower compared with most of the major European cities. The Netherlands is the second-most densely cabled city in the world where unlimited data can be sent and received in real time. The Amsterdam Internet exchange is the largest Internet hub worldwide.

A major incentive for more than 1,400 international companies that have set up offices in Amsterdam is the logistical facilities available in the airport area. The Amsterdam Schiphol Airport is situated in the geographical centre of the main European markets of Germany, France and the United Kingdom. About 450 million consumers in Western and Eastern Europe are within an 1,800-km radius.

The port of Amsterdam is just 15 minutes away from the airport terminal. Rotterdam, the biggest seaport in Europe, is about an hours drive. All major international corporations have their European headquarters in Amsterdam. Paul J.M. Jansen, Director of the Schiphol Area Development Authority, said that 5,000 trucks left for other parts of Europe every day with goods imported through the citys airport.

The multi-billion-dollar global flower trade is also located in Amsterdam. There is great scope for cooperation between the Netherlands and India in this field. But the Dutch suspect some Indian companies of stealing their expertise relating to the export of flowers. The Dutch use a special technology to retain the freshness and aroma of flowers coming in from Africa, Asia and Latin America until they reach their destination.

If things go according to plan, the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport will soon become the home base of the private Indian carrier Kingfisher Airlines. The airliner is scheduled to start direct flights from Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore to Amsterdam early next year.

Kingfisher has applied for landing rights to the Dutch Transport Ministry. It already has an arrangement with the Dutch carrier KLM for code-sharing. A high-level Indo-Dutch business summit is to be held in October in Amsterdam.

The Indian delegation is to be led by Commerce Minister Kamal Nath. A Festival of India is also being organised to coincide with the event.

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