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The Netherlands (Holland) - Overview

The Netherlands is located in Western Europe and borders Belgium and Germany with a North Sea coastline. The formation of the Netherlands dates back to 1579 when the Dutch United Provinces declared their independence from Spanish control. The Kingdom of the Netherlands was formed in 1815, by which time the province of Holland had become a major commercial and trading power and had many overseas colonies and settlements. The country is still often referred to by the alternative name of Holland, a practice which reflects the dominant role the Province of Holland played in its historical development.

Much of the country has been reclaimed from the sea and around a fifth of the land is below sea level. The landscape is flat and crossed by many rivers and canals. It is the most densely populated country in Europe, with around 475 people per square kilometre of land. The country has a temperate, marine climate, with fairly cool summers, mild winters and high rainfall throughout the year.

The Netherlands is highly urbanized and is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. However, there are few large conurbations - most people live in cities and towns of less than 100,000 people, and even Amsterdam, the capital and largest urban centre, only has a population of around 750,000. Amsterdam is a particularly popular tourist destination famed for its cobbled streets, tree-lined canals, lively nightlife and infamous red light district. Other main cities include The Hague, which is the seat of government, Utrecht, Rotterdam and Eindhoven. In contrast to Holland's lively, cosmopolitan cities, the countryside is still characteristically Dutch, with many traditional working windmills and scenic tulip fields.

The Netherlands is a popular destination for expatriates from other western countries as well as many other immigrants from around the world, and there is a very big expatriate community. Its popularity with foreigners has been largely due to the tolerant and liberal attitudes of the Dutch towards people of all races, religions, political persuasions and sexualities.

In recent years, however, Dutch liberalism has come under attack with the rise in popularity of anti-immigration politicians and a growth in racial violence. Freedom of speech and freedom of belief are no longer taken for granted, and immigration policies have been tightened. Nevertheless, Holland is still a very liberal country which welcomes foreigners.

Western expatriates are also attracted to the Netherlands because of the high standard of living, excellent infrastructure, and stable economy. Holland also has one of the most extensive and generous social welfare systems in Europe. The crime rate is low compared with many other western countries and most Dutch people can speak English. However, the Netherlands is mainly a destination of choice for working expatriates rather than retirees, as the cost of living there is relatively high.

As of July 2007 the Netherlands had a population of 16,570,613. It was estimated in 1999 that around 83% of the population were Dutch, with the remainder including 9% of non-Western origin. The balance is likely to be shifting a little since immigration to the Netherlands has been high in recent years and has been mainly from other European countries rather than traditional immigrant countries such as Turkey, Morocco and Suriname.

Dutch society is often described as egalitarian because everyone is treated with respect regardless of position or status, even in the workplace. One thing that often frustrates foreigners, however, is the convoluted bureaucracy that seems to cover every aspect of life in the Netherlands.

Most Dutch people speak very good English, but it is generally expected that foreigners living in Holland will learn some Dutch language. Although Dutch is reportedly a fairly difficult language to learn, there are many language schools throughout the country offering instruction. The standard version of Dutch is spoken mainly by people in the Randstad area of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht; people in other parts of the country speak in distinctive accents and dialects.

Although the Netherlands is one of the world's smallest countries in geographic terms, it is a highly prosperous country with has one of the strongest economies and highest standards of living in the world, with GDP per capita (2006) of $32,100. Its economic success has been built largely on foreign trade and the country's role as a transportation hub, with Rotterdam being the world's largest seaport and Schiphol the fourth largest airport in Western Europe.

Economic stability, a highly skilled labour force, a reputation for efficiency and an advanced and sophisticated transport and communications infrastructure have made the Netherlands very attractive to multinational firms and foreign investors alike, and companies which have their headquarters here include Philips Electronics, Unilever, Shell, Heineken and ING. The Netherlands is a major exporter of high tech products, the largest natural gas producer in Europe and a major refiner of crude oil.

The Netherlands has enjoyed very strong economic growth in past decades, but this has slowed considerably in recent years due to a decline in foreign trade reflecting a worldwide downturn. Nevertheless, the Dutch economy remains relatively strong and unemployment and inflation levels have been moderate. In 2006 the unemployment rate was 5.5% and inflation 1.4%.

Nearly four fifths of Holland's labour force of 7.6 million (2006) work in the service sector which accounts for around two thirds of the country's GNP, with the remaining fifth mainly in industry. There is a technologically advanced and highly efficient agricultural sector employing about 2% of the labour force which generates about 10% of GNP. Recent years have seen expansions in the service sector, especially government, education and health care, while construction and industry have been in decline.

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