The global economic crisis of 2008 led Amsterdam to look for new income streams. To attract more visitors, Amsterdam has been promoted as a city of fun and entertainment where anything is possible. Ten years later, 20 million people visit the city annually, and while it has recouped millions in tax revenues, a consequence is that daily, on average, there are ten tourists for each Amsterdam resident.
Today, worldwide, one in ten people have a job related to tourism, and it is the leading industry or an important part of many countries’ economic development. But only recently have we started to consider the negative impacts of tourism on local communities. Over the last four decades rising prosperity led to an increase in tourism, and in the last twenty years low cost flights and cheap accommodation drove an escalation in short-stay travel, so-called city breaks, with Barcelona, Venice, Dubrovnik, Amsterdam and similar cities experiencing huge influxes of tourists.
In 2002 the Cape Town Declaration defined responsible tourism as that which “minimises negative economic, environmental and social impacts” and “provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people.”
Why is responsible tourism so important?
Air travel is a pollutant, short-term rentals are a factor in increasing the rental prices for citydwellers, and large numbers of visitors strain cities’ infrastructures and locals. As one Amsterdam resident remarked, “I’ve been woken up by people going down my street in tour groups with the guide shouting the history of my building, and had people watching my neighbours as if they were in a zoo.”
In an interview with The Guardian, Sebastiaan Meijer, Amsterdam’s municipality’s spokesperson for economic affairs, said, “For a long time our marketing policy was simply aimed at making people come to Amsterdam. Now we want to spread a new message, ‘come to Amsterdam, but please behave’.” Responsible tourism is vital in balancing wanderlust with maintaining a respected and respectable environment for locals.
Challenges of over-tourism in Amsterdam
“Getting stuck behind a group of 30 tourists, taking selfies, isn’t fun when I’m heading to the office or picking up my kids from school,” said another Amsterdam local. Residents also complain that their local shops have been replaced by those catering solely to tourists, and that they often feel like visitors in their own neighbourhoods. Edwin Schölvinck, a volunteer with ‘I Live Here’, an initiative by residents of Amsterdam’s de Wallen neighbourhood–the Red Light District–believes the beauty of city life is vitality and bustle, but things can get out of hand. “While we are not against tourism,” he says, “we do have our lives.” ‘I Live Here’ was formed by locals in de Wallen, Amsterdam’s oldest neighbourhood, to help visitors appreciate that it isn’t a Disneyland for grown-ups, rather where 3,750 people live, bring up children and go to work. “I’m always asked, ‘People actually live here?’” says Schölvinck. “I love cities and I love the people in Amsterdam,” he adds. “But some Saturday nights can feel like King’s Day. It’s just too busy. Sometimes I leave town.” By Sunday evening he is back in his Wallen apartment watching the crowds on the narrow street outside. “I always miss the place, I always come back,” he smiles.
Schölvinck agrees that things need to change, but Amsterdam’s message of openness shouldn’t be lost. How this is balanced with the commercial needs of the city is difficult. The future of this neighbourhood is one priority of Amsterdam’s new mayor Femke Halsema, but Schölvinck worries that the sheer number of people crammed into the tiny streets is untenable, and could lead to unfortunate consequences. However, he’s an optimist and a lover of the city he has called home for over 26 years. “We await policy change from the city and government,” he says. “But never forget the changes we can make as individuals. Together small changes make a difference.”
Unique tourism initiatives
Amsterdam is also taking a novel approach with a recent project that encourages visitors to explore places beyond Amsterdam. Adjacent areas have been rebranded, coastal Zandvoort has become ‘Amsterdam Beach’, Keukenhof is advertised as ‘Flowers of Amsterdam’ and Muiderslot as ‘Amsterdam Castle’. Perhaps changing the identities of these places is simply a clever trick, but the intention is to lighten the burden on the city centre. Within Amsterdam new policies mean regulations on city centre guided tours of more than six people, bierfietsen (beer bicycles) banned, short-term property rentals limited to fewer than 30 days per year, and the city tourist tax increased. “You have to start somewhere,” says former mayor, Jozias van Aartsen.
Tourism in the rest of the Netherlands
Increasingly tour providers are taking visitors beyond the beaten path into the Dutch countryside and lesser-known cities. ‘Dutch Experience’ organises ‘experiences’ provided by locals, where visitors can learn about music in The Hague or take a walk in Abcoude with Piet Mondrian. Rather than taking a selfie on the Museumplein, spending time with enthusiastic locals gives a more authentic image of the Netherlands. Bicycle tours take small groups of visitors to the countryside and local markets and windmills. Many visitors want to try cycling while in the Netherlands, and it’s better experienced on a peaceful country bicycle path than in the centre of Amsterdam.
What we can do as individuals
Although governments can take bigger steps to focus on responsible tourism, individually we can also make a difference. We can encourage our visitors from abroad to come during the low season, between November and March, and avoid overcrowded areas such as Museumplein, the Red Light District or Dam Square during the peak season. We can look at alternatives to Amsterdam, take our visitors to learn about Dutch art at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, home to Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and many of Rembrandt’s paintings, or to see unique Dutch architecture in Rotterdam, Gouda or Utrecht. Travelling abroad, we can be more accountable by taking individual trips, avoiding large groups, staying in a locally-owned hotel, eating regional food and buying local products. We can avoid going to places known for over-tourism or decide to visit them during the low season. Edwin Schölvinck echoes many locals, “All we ask is that visitors act the same way as they would in their own neighbourhoods.” He wants people to appreciate Amsterdam as he does, but worries that before long overcrowding will mean that all visitors will see is the back of someone’s head, or a phone screen. “Everything they come to see is hidden behind the crowds.”
About the author
Tea Gudek Šnajdar is a museum docent and a travel blogger living in Haarlem. On her blog culturetourist.com she’s writes about the art, history and culture of European destinations.