How Amsterdam is fighting back against mass tourism

CNN Travel's Richard Quest takes an insider look at Amsterdam's favorite flower.

Posted: May 23, 2019 10:10 AM
Updated: May 23, 2019 10:10 AM

Famous for its tolerance as much as its narrow houses and broad canals, Amsterdam is undergoing a radical change of attitude when it comes to the millions of tourists that flock to see it each year.

Tolerance, it seems, has reached its limits in the Dutch capital, which is now actively urging visitors to head elsewhere as frustrated locals complain of feeling besieged by visitors using the city's bicycle-thronged streets as a travel playground.

"The pressure is very high," says Ellen van Loon, a partner at Dutch architectural firm OMA who is involved in adapting the city for the future. "We don't want to turn into a Venice. The problem we are currently facing is that Amsterdam is so loved by tourists, we just have so many coming to the city."

While Van Loon acknowledges the positive aspects of tourism, which earns the Dutch economy around 82 billion euros ($91.5 billion) a year, like many locals she's worried that soaring visitor numbers are destroying the soul of this vibrant cosmopolitan city.

Like Venice and other destinations across Europe, Amsterdam has become a byword for overtourism -- a phenomenon closely linked to the rise in cheaper air travel that has seen visitors flood certain places, often spoiling the very spot they came to enjoy.

While some cities are still formulating ways to cope, Amsterdam -- where a decade-long surge in visitor numbers is forecast to continue, rising from 18 million in 2018 to 42 million in 2030, or more than 50 times the current population -- has simply decided it's had enough.

Netherlands tourist officials recently took the bold decision to stop advertising the country as a tourist destination. Their "Perspective 2030″ report, published earlier this year, stated that the focus will now be on "destination management" rather than "destination promotion."

The document also outlines the country's future strategy, acknowledging that Amsterdam's livability will be severely impacted by "visitor overload" if action isn't taken.

Solutions listed include working to dissuade groups of "nuisance" visitors by either limiting or completely shutting down "accommodation and entertainment products" aimed at them, as well as spreading visitors to other parts of the Netherlands.

Some of these measures have already come into play.

Fervor for flowers

Last year, the famous "I amsterdam" sign was removed from outside the Rijksmuseum, the city's main art gallery, at the request of the city of Amsterdam, as it was "drawing too big of a crowd to an already limited space."

The two-meter high letters have been relocated to various "lesser-known neighborhoods" in a bid to entice travelers away from the center of the city.

Mass tourism has also impacted one of Amsterdam's other famous symbols, tulips.

While today's billion dollar trade grew from tulip mania -- the 17th century economic bubble, when bulbs sold for more than a year's wages -- Dutch floral fervor hasn't waned.

"Flowers really belong to our culture, our heritage," says Florian Seyd, florist and co-founder of Wunderkammer.

"In the beginning tulips came from Turkey, and were grown mainly in palaces. Then a few bulbs came to Netherlands and started to multiply. I think that's when the big love from the Dutch for flowers started."

While tulips aren't as hard to come by here nowadays, they remain enormously important to the country, with its bulb region of Bollenstreek, located just outside Amsterdam, drawing plenty of visitors during spring.

But selfie-seeking tourists have been damaging fields, leading the tourist board to issue a "dos and don'ts" guide to taking photos next to them.

In addition, signs emblazoned with the slogan, "Enjoy the flowers, respect our pride," have been erected around fields in the region to deter visitors from trampling tulips while posing for pictures.

Some farmers have even opted to fence in their fields to protect them.

Red Light District restrictions

Measures have also been taken to discourage travelers from visiting some of Amsterdam's seedier tourist hotspots.

Earlier this year, the city government announced it will end tours of the Red Light District in central Amsterdam, citing concerns that sex workers are being treated as a tourist attraction.

The ban will come into effect on January 1, 2020, in order to give the existing tour companies a chance to wind down business.

This move comes after new shops aimed at tourists were banned in the city, along with Airbnb short-term rentals in busy areas.

While Amsterdam's popularity can be attributed to many factors, one of the main reasons tourists are so attracted to the city is undoubtedly due to its freedom and liberalism.

For instance, prostitution has been legal in the Netherlands since 2000.

The practice was "tolerated" for years before this, thus beginning a culture of accepting the illegal -- known as "Gedogen."

While this Dutch term is untranslatable, it essentially means to look the other way. The "Gedogen" approach has also been applied to cannabis use in the Netherlands since 1976.

While the drug is still technically illegal in the country, authorities choose to openly ignore it, refraining to prosecute anyone in possession of less than five grams for personal use.

The Netherlands was also the first country in the world to legalize same sex marriage in 2001, with the first legal same sex wedding taking place in its capital city that same year.

But although Amsterdam is celebrated for its freedom today, it hasn't always been a place of tolerance.

Perhaps ironically, one of the city's most highly regarded sites serves as a harsh reminder of this.

Anne Frank House, a unique testimony of the German-born teenager's life under Nazi occupation, is its third most popular museum after the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum.

Darkest chapter

One of Amsterdam's most famous residents, Anne died in a concentration camp in 1945 at the age of 15.

"We pride ourselves on being a city which is tolerant. A city where people can be themselves, which is true," says museum director Ronald Leopold, one of the guardians of Anne's diary and legacy.

"But we also have these dark pages, and these are probably the darkest."

According to Leopald, around half of the 1.3 million people who visit the Anne Frank House each year are under the age of 30.

"I think it's increasingly important to learn about what happened here during World War II and the Holocaust," he adds.

"This is a wonderful point of entry for many young people to learn about that history.

"It's also very important to think and reflect on how this could have happened and what it says about us in 2019. What it says about the communities we live in and our responsibility to them."

By the time Anne Frank's father Otto, the only member of the family to survive the Holocaust, published her diary in 1947, the war had left Amsterdam forever altered.

Now, over 70 years later the city is going through a much less welcome change.

But will the measures being put in place to curb mass tourism be enough to save it from being wrecked by its own success?

Like many other locals, architect Van Loon fears that Amsterdam, which came in 23rd place on Euromonitor International's report on the Top 100 City Destinations in 2018, is dangerously close to losing its unique allure forever.

"The reason tourists come here is because there's something in the character of Amsterdam they love," she explains.

"But at a certain point, when the amount of tourists is increasing and increasing, they actually kill what they loved in the first place."

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