Campo Alegre, Spanish for Camp Happiness, is a former military barrack converted into a sprawling center of carnal pleasure -- or red light district, if you prefer -- situated behind a gated, walled compound, just a few miles outside the island's capital, Willemstad, not far from the airport.
A bizarre, friendly, amusement-park atmosphere permeates the place. There is almost, one is tempted to say, a family-like ambience, though those may be an odd choice of words. However, this is a far cry from Amsterdam's ill-famed red-light district, where women sit behind storefront windows dressed in, well, very little. Here, though the women are scantily dressed, most of them wear miniskirts or hot pants, displaying no more skin than you would see on any Caribbean or European beach.
In fact, Campo Alegre has become one of Curacao's main tourist attractions, sort of the island's "Must See World." Asked if she had been there yet, a Dutch female journalist visiting from Surinam replied, "No, not yet. But I am going tonight."
A $6 fee will get you inside the compound after passing a metal detector and a body search (for men only) carried out by uniformed security guards. Campo Alegre's uniqueness attracts hundreds of foreign visitors daily, including women who, upon showing their passports to prove they are tourists, are then allowed to enter.
Once inside, visitors can venture freely and without hindrance along the paths of the former barracks where the ladies of the night (and day, as Campo Alegre operates 24 hours) market their wares. The women operate out of individual bungalows, each furnished with a bed, a shower, a television set and a panic button allowing them to summon security in case a customer gets out of control.
A small, red light above each of the 120 numbered rooms -- not unlike those found in recording studios -- indicates when that particular room is occupied.
The compound includes a bar, where many visitors often come simply to enjoy a beer or two. Unless you approach the women, with the exception of an occasional smile, they tend to leave you alone. One young Dutchman said he had come here with his married buddies "to make sure they remain faithful to their wives." The group of men sat alone drinking Amstel beer.
There is a cafeteria where the women can take their meals, a hairdressing salon, as well as a number of stores where the women and visitors can shop. And there are plans to open an Internet café soon. The place even has a toy store where women who have children can purchase presents for them before returning home.
The majority of the women who work in Campo Alegre come from Colombia and enter the island, which is part of the Netherlands Antilles, on a non-renewable three-month visa.
"Back home, these women would earn about $20 a month, if they could find work," explains James R. Hepple, executive director of Curacao's Tourist Board, who acted as this reporter's guide. "Here, they earn $30 in half an hour," adds Hepple.
"From a purely business perspective, the guy who runs this place is a genius," said Mike Day, a native of Colorado who owns Sunset Divers, a scuba diving shop in Santa Martha Bay that he runs with his wife, Michele. This "genius" would be Terry Van Irlean, the manager who is behind the success of the place.
Campo Alegre rents out the rooms to the women for 90 guilders ($45) a night. Anything they earn after that is theirs to keep. There are no middlemen to threaten them, beat them or take a share of their earnings.
Campo Alegre gets about 300-400 visitors on weeknights, and about 1,500 on weekends, each paying $6 just to get inside the door, plus whatever they then spend on drinks, shopping and entertainment. You do the math. Not to mention the very discreet under-the-table drug trade that goes on.
"I'm sure they (the brothel's management) get a cut of that as well," said someone familiar with the establishment and the manager.
Curacao officials, however, deny the existence of a drug culture in the territory. But after all, Curacao is just 35 miles off the coast of South America.
Seeing the government is not about to stop prostitution, which is legal in Netherlands Antilles anyway, as it is in the Netherlands, officials feel it makes far more sense to control it than allow it to go unchecked and have women work the streets downtown. This, they feel, would encourage crime.
"They operate in a safe and friendly environment," says Hepple, a native of England, of Campo Alegre's working women. "They get checked by a doctor once a week to make sure they are OK," adds the Tourist Board director. The women are allowed to refuse service, if they so chose. When asked if promoting this type of tourism might not project a negative image of the Caribbean island, Hepple replied, "There is no such thing as bad tourism."
Hepple says Curacao currently attracts about 220,000 tourists a year, plus another 320,000 from cruise ships. Indeed, from a financial perspective, Curacao has been late getting into the tourism game, unlike for example next door Bonaire, another of the Netherlands Antilles islands known for scuba diving. Also unlike other Caribbean islands, Curacao is mostly undeveloped and rural. With the exception of tiny Willemstad, there is little else, other than the beaches, of which the island boasts some 38 individual coves.
For its part, the local government only recently realized the benefits to be reaped from the lucrative tourist trade and is now trying to catch up. Even if at times that includes promoting less than orthodox tourist attractions.
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