Earlier this month, a report from the Netherlands Tourist Board announced a remarkable policy change: Acknowledging that “more is not always better,” the board will no longer actively promote its country as a tourist destination. Instead, straining under the pressure of a booming tourism scene, the board will focus on redistributing the visitors it already has, operating as a sort of tourism damage control for popular vacation hotspots.
It seems that barely a week goes by in Amsterdam without some new push to contain the travel industry. Also this month, the city announced a ban on tour groups in the Red Light District, where they have been causing frustration by coming solely to gawp. After a previous ban on beer bikes, the city considered (but then rejected) banning drinking on boats to prevent noise and nuisance on the canals. And things have reached such a head that, last winter, the city removed the famous “I Amsterdam” sign from outside the Rijksmuseum because people were sick of the gridlock it created as tourists flocked to get a good selfie.
These smaller fights have some heftier policies backing them up, too.
In 2016, Amsterdam imposed a “hotel stop,” which barred approval for more hotel rooms in the city. It also tightened the reins on Airbnb, reducing its 60-night-a-year cap for Airbnb rentals down to 30 nights. Last winter, it introduced an €8 charge for cruise passengers arriving in the harbor.
Amsterdam, it might appear, has reached a tipping point, and is trying hard to bring tourism under control. Look more closely, however, and a paradox emerges.
Amsterdam and the Netherlands may be frantically trying to limit tourist excesses and preserve livability for locals, but they’re also pursuing policies that make further tourist growth ever easier. Greater Amsterdam is in fact going through a hotel boom, including in the city itself. Meanwhile, airports in the region are due for substantial expansion, and a vast new cruise terminal nearby is on the way.
The desire for control is there, but it’s warring with a push for growth that can only serve to further inflate the tourist bubble. Zoom in on the issues and a complex picture emerges of one step forward, one step back.
The wrong crowd
Amsterdam’s charm has long attracted visitors, but the city’s popularity has recently spiked. After a 13 percent increase in overnight stays in 2017, and 7 percent in 2018, the city saw just under 17 million visitors last year. That’s no small number for a city of 830,000 residents.
The crowds that flock to Amsterdam can be rowdier than most. Easily available weed, throbbing bars, and a high-profile sex industry have long attracted a bachelor party crowd to Amsterdam, especially from the British Isles. Not all these visitors are that bad, but many still seem intent on turning the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal into a torrent of spew. Amsterdam is traditionally a laid-back place, but tolerance has thinned. People who think terminal drunkenness is standard local behavior need a reality check, says Geerte Udo, director of amsterdam&partners, a public-private non-profit that functions as the city’s main marketing body.
“If you respect the city’s rituals and you’re really interested in what it has to show, there’s a huge way for you to participate in our whole system,” Udo told CityLab. “For the rest, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether you visit Amsterdam, Barcelona, or a Thai island—you should respect local tradition, and clean up behind your ass, so to speak. Walking the streets beer-in-hand is not what [Amsterdam] locals do, nor is smoking pot on the street or a terrace. We have coffee shops for that.”
To spread the message, amsterdam&partners launched a high-profile “Enjoy and Respect” campaign last year, informing visitors of local customs, rules, and penalties. For many, however, there’s more amiss with contemporary tourism than rowdiness alone.
“You could say quality tourism people travel because they’re inquisitive and want to learn,” says Stephen Hodes, founder of local tourism think tank Amsterdam in Progress. “Unfortunately, that kind of tourism is on the downward trend. The new tourists are the status seekers, who travel because it’s good for the way other people perceive them. They’re people who go to sites, take a selfie first to show they’ve have been there, and otherwise aren’t interested.”
This might be annoying, but you can’t legislate against disinterest. What you can do, Udo says, is channel and distribute people more effectively. Even people who say they want an authentic local experience can fall unwittingly into a tourist rut. People who want to be responsible can, for example, cause hold-ups by riding bikes during morning rush hour.
“If you look at factual data, people behave very much alike,” she says. “Many people go to the Van Gogh Museum in the morning, and on a canal boat in the afternoon. That puts pressure on the city at certain places in certain moments, which can end up creating collisions with the locals.”
The city is thus in the process of tailoring its “I Amsterdam” app to match suggestions to visitors’ tastes, and recommend activities at times when they’re not normally full of people.
Opening the gates
This seems sensible, but is this focus on visitor behavior realistic, or entirely fair? While Amsterdam attempts to manage tourist flows, some aspects of both national and local government policy serve to pump ever more visitors into the city. In 2020, Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport will expand to host a further 50,000 flights a year, making yet more room by shunting low-cost carriers to tiny Lelystad Airport, which is currently closed but set to reopen on a far larger scale in 2020.
This revamped overflow airport, of which the city of Amsterdam owns 20 percent, will also host some new flights, something that is required by E.U. competition law. Meanwhile, cruise ships will soon be able to dock at a vastly expanded cruise terminal (probably 24 miles away at IJmuiden, although the location has not yet been confirmed) one that’s capable of hosting ships containing 6,000 or more passengers. This new terminal may save inner Amsterdam some pollution, but could also increase cruise passenger numbers to 770,000 annually by 2030, almost three times the 2015 figure of 280,000 a year. Hodes says he can’t believe that this could be seen as a benefit to the city.
“[Cruise ships] pollute the environment, their passengers spend the lowest amount of any kind of tourists coming to Amsterdam, and they travel in large groups,” he says. “What’s the idea behind encouraging this?”
Meanwhile, despite the hotel stop, new hotel room construction in the city continues apace, with a total of 8,133 new rooms still due in the coming years. These rooms aren’t limited by the hotel stop because their licenses were granted before it was introduced. With a further 14,000 rooms currently in planning for the outer suburbs, Greater Amsterdam’s overnight accommodation will ultimately rise by 63 percent. Amsterdam has seen a modest drop of 5 percent in Airbnb bookings, but its difficulties in ensuring listings obey the rules means that the city’s control of tourist accommodation is tenuous at best.
The forces pumping up the city’s tourist industry are so great that some campaigners are beginning to despair. Since talking to CityLab, Stephen Hode of Amsterdam in Progress has announced that he is closing the think tank down, discouraged by what he sees as a lack of municipal will to actually improve things.
“I’ve had meetings with the mayor and with city aldermen and civil servants focused on tourism,” he says. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the degree of denial is so unbelievable that there isn’t a hope in hell of our problems being solved in the near future—and that no one has any real intention of doing anything about it.”
Amsterdam isn’t alone in facing these issues, and while the measures it has tried may not be enough, it has still tried much harder than many other cities to alleviate the situation. A time will still come when both the city and its country may have to make some tough choices in order to reconcile a desire for livability with a desire for growth. And if that time isn’t now, it’s probably soon.