Amsterdam is sick of ‘party tourists’. It should take drastic measures to stop them | Renate van der Zee

An online quiz is the latest strategy with which Amsterdam hopes to deter nuisance tourists. The quiz is called Amsterdam Rules, and is meant to appear in search results about the city. It asks for the reasons why you desire to visit the Dutch capital. If you respond: for a stag party, a pub crawl or to smoke marijuana in public, you’ll be told that you will be disappointed, because it’s no longer allowed.

The quiz is just one in a long series of experiments with which Amsterdam has tried to reduce the disruption caused by the hordes of tourists who come to the city to party wildly.

This has included not only advertisements directed at potential tourists, but also concrete policy measures within the city. Advancing the closing times of bars in the red light district, for instance, has slightly improved things for residents. Others, such as the ban on smoking marijuana in public, are hard to enforce. And still others, such as restricting opening times for window brothels, were quickly reversed.

As it stands, none of Amsterdam’s strategies have led to a real solution to the problem. The raw numbers tell the real story: the number of tourists continues to rise. In 2023, overnight stays increased by 21% to 9m. This brings Amsterdam back to pre-pandemic levels, while the city expects visitor numbers to reach record highs in the coming years.

The big question now is: how much more is this relatively small city of 900,000 residents able to take? The narrow streets, alleyways and bridges in the fragile, historic 17th-century centre were simply never designed to allow large crowds of people to pass – even if they all behaved themselves. The everyday residents of the red light district feel crowded out by the throngs of tourists who sometimes even prevent them from reaching their homes.

These residents scoff at the online quiz. Their fate is comparable to that of the Venetians who recently protested against the introduction of an entrance fee to the city of €5 for day trippers – another attempt to curb overtourism. They feel that it reduces the city to a theme park, and will not improve their day-to-day living conditions.

Two years ago there was talk of adding access gates and entrance fees for the red light district. That plan was quickly abandoned: there are simply too many alleys that lead to the window brothels, and again, it explicitly presents the neighbourhood as a tourist park.

This situation is not limited to Amsterdam and Venice. Across Europe, policymakers acknowledge that the number of tourists in many popular destinations is untenable, but cannot seem to address the root of the problem.

The local politician Sofyan Mbarki believes the major problem is Amsterdam’s image as a place where anything goes. With the quiz, he hopes to change the way visitors think about the city. But the truth is that a problematic image can’t be changed overnight. You will actually have to adjust reality too.

The mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, is aware of this. Five years ago, she boldly proposed closing the window brothels in the red light district – an audacious move considering that many local people still considered window prostitution an integral part of the city’s folklore. Gradually, more people are realising that what goes on in the red light district has nothing to do with folklore.

Halsema has often faced fierce opposition. Interestingly, it was leftwing parties (including her own GreenLeft party) that resisted her plans. In 2021 she proposed another measure with substance: allowing only Dutch residents into coffee shops. Once again, the left resisted.

Meanwhile, activists who fought overtourism for years have left the arena out of sheer frustration. They feel they are no match for the powerful lobby groups of entrepreneurs, who earn such high profits in the red light district that they can easily fund campaigns against unfavourable proposals from the mayor. In contrast, residents are fragmented into various small action groups with very little funding. Often they focus on the specific problems in their part of the neighbourhood, instead of the wider issue.

Whether it’s Venice, Amsterdam or any other European city reeling from overtourism, one thing has become crystal clear: when faced with a dramatic problem, dramatic measures are needed. While Amsterdam’s conversation is often focused on the red light district and a certain kind of tourist, it simply isn’t enough to try to diminish the nuisance caused by one group: the overall volume of tourists needs to be addressed.

This means deciding what a sustainable level of tourism really is – one that allows both visitors and local people to enjoy a city. To reach this, governments could significantly limit the flights and cruise ships that come to a city and the area around it. To curb overtourism in Amsterdam, downsizing Schiphol airport would be a great move – as it would simultaneously benefit the environment. While such plans were once on the table, the Dutch government regrettably put them on hold earlier this year.

Implementing drastic measures requires courage. It requires courage to put a long-term vision for a livable city ahead of short-term economic interests. And it requires courage to face the wrath of the tourism sector, which wields an extremely strong lobby and only wants one thing: more tourism.

The Guardian

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