Overtourism in Amsterdam

Its historic network of canals and bridges has lead to Amsterdam’s moniker of ‘Venice of the North’; however, more recently, the word ‘Venice’ has been overheard describing the Dutch capital in a much less favourable way. Just like the Italian City of Bridges, Amsterdam is struggling to stem the unstoppable tide of tourists that floods its streets every year and the issue of overtourism is blighting another European city.

According to the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions (NBTC), tourism in the Netherlands is expected to grow by four percent in 2019, taking the predicted number of international visitors to 19.8 million. As things stand, tourist numbers for 2025 are calculated to reach 23 million. Most of those visitors will spend some time in Amsterdam. It’s an amount that many in the city consider to be unsustainable, with current visitors are already stretching Amsterdam’s hospitality to its limits.

Causes of overtourism in Amsterdam

After the global financial crisis of 2008, the Netherlands, and especially Amsterdam, invested heavily in tourism. Money was poured into marketing the city as a tourist destination and developers were actively sought to build new hotels within the city center. The promotional campaign worked so well that Amsterdam has now become a victim of its own success; since 2009, visitors have increased from 10m to a pivotal 19m in 2018.

The financial crisis has also been responsible for cuts in the construction of new houses which, in addition to the increase in buy-to-lets in Amsterdam, has now resulted in a housing shortage and spiralling rents, pricing many residents out of the market. The problem is compounded by the rise in poorly regulated vacation rental companies like Airbnb which often make traveling cheaper and, in many cases, are also taking whole properties off the market. Currently, more than 79 percent of Amsterdam’s listings on the platform are for entire homes or apartments, totalling almost 15,500 properties. In June 2019, Amsterdam was one of 10 European cities to direct a joint letter to the EU, appealing for help with its most recent attempt to curb the influence of housing rental websites.

We also have budget airlines to thank for the proliferation of cheap travel and the issues it engenders. With the ever increasing availability of low cost flights, where a return ticket from London to Amsterdam can cost as little as two seats at the cinema, the number of air passengers, and repeat flyers, is steadily growing. As of 2018, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is currently the fourth ‘best connected’ airport in the world, handling a staggering 60 million passengers per year. The numbers are also being driven up by an increasing number of Asian tourists flying to Europe.

What impact does overtourism have?

Many residents in Amsterdam feel that the tourism industry has had a marked impact on the local neighbourhoods. With the steady increase in visitors to the city center comes the opening of yet another new shop or restaurant catering only to its transient occupants, creating the overall impression of living in a theme park. The streets feel less lived in, and even the tourists have started complaining that they only see other tourists. The homogenisation of the high street risks ruining the very character of the city that people come to experience in the first place.
The behaviour of many tourists is also plaguing the city and, while it’s easy to just point the finger at the stag and hen parties that flock to Amsterdam, concerns are more generally targeted at groups of 18-34 year olds who visit for the weekend. According to the city’s Enjoy & Respect campaign, typical offensive behaviour includes public urination and vomiting, littering, drunkenness and noise. Issues have also arisen around a lack of awareness of the drug laws in Amsterdam, which is in turn causing a rise in crime in certain parts of the city. City officials have also voiced worries about the impact of Red Light District tours, citing overcrowding and disrespectful behaviour (leering and photography).

The major impact of overtourism is the displacement of local people. Young families in particular are struggling to find affordable housing in the city and, as more apartments are rented out full time to visitors, many residents are starting to find that they don’t know their neighbours anymore. Fewer facilities, from GP practices to shops, make living in the city increasingly impractical.

What is being done?

Faced with the fallout from overtourism, the Dutch tourism board has made the move away from ‘destination promotion’ to ‘destination management’, pledging its intention to make sure every Dutch person benefits from tourism by 2030.

Some of Amsterdam’s more anti-social tourist activities and attractions are being re-evaluated, with outright bans on the worst offenders such as bierfiets, or ‘beer bikes’, multi-passenger, pedal powered, alcohol serving vehicles – a sort of pub on wheels. Heavy, on-the-spot fines have also been introduced for anti-social behaviour and there are campaigns to raise awareness of local drug laws. Bans have also been put in place on the opening of new outlets catering solely to tourists and, as of 1st January 2020, tours of the Red Light District will also be prohibited.

Crucially, the NBTC wants to divert visitors away from over saturated areas and into lesser known neighbourhoods, or out of the city all together. Tourists queuing to take selfies in front of the iconic I Amsterdam sign will find it has been relocated from in front of the Rijksmuseum to Schiphol Airport, while the ‘Marry an Amsterdammer for the day’ initiative aims to increase visitor engagement with local people, by staging a mock wedding with a local person then heading off into lesser visited areas of Amsterdam for a day long honeymoon.

What you can do

Of course, you can be more engaged with the city’s residents, and enjoy a better experience of Amsterdam, simply by choosing to travel in a more thoughtful, responsible way. Instead of ticking off a checklist of must-see attractions, take the time to consider where you go, the time of year and how you travel.

When it comes to Amsterdam this means avoiding the peak tourist months, July and August, when the weather is usually at its best. Fortunately, the Dutch climate is mild throughout the year, making off season travel appealing as well as cheaper. Autumn is the best time to visit for quiet city streets without the risk of too much rain, as spring can also draw in the crowds hoping to see tulips in bloom.
Avoid shops and services dedicated solely to tourists and shop in locally owned stores that cater to residents. You’ll find better quality products and a quieter atmosphere away from the large tour groups. Amsterdam is littered with novelty Nutella bars and sweet shops selling oversized confectionery and cakes with neon icing, but the local specialities to look for are poffertjes (little Dutch pancakes served with butter and sugar), bitterballen (crispy meatballs) and oliebollen (deep fried sweet doughnuts).

The easiest way to avoid the tourist heavy areas of Amsterdam is with a responsible, organised tour. In a small group, led by a local guide, you can visit the parts of the city you’ll never find on a tourist map, discover sights you’ve never read about and eat in restaurants where Dutch is the main language you’ll overhear. Traveling in a smaller group allows you to visit little shops and eateries that can’t cater to the larger, louder crowds and don’t normally feel the benefit of tourism.
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: Not4rthur] [Intro: redcharlie] [What impact does overtourism have?: Jase Ess] [What you can do: Quaid Lagan]