Amsterdam has been catering to tourists, for the weed, for the sex shops, the canals, and for the wonderful architecture, for years, and now its citizens have discovered that they like their city a lot better without the hoards of overbearing tourists:
Amsterdam’s historic Red Light District is rife with English-language city signs admonishing tourists: “Don’t pee in the street”; “No alcohol in public spaces”; “Put your trash in the bin”; “Fine: 140 euros.”
But the cartoonish black-and-red warnings on the 17th-century canals look strangely out of place these days. There are no visitors to heed them.
Beginning in mid-March, when the Netherlands went into semi-lockdown to combat the covid-19 pandemic, tourism vanished from Amsterdam almost overnight. A social and economic crisis has hit the country and its capital hard. But for residents of Amsterdam’s historic city center, there is a clear silver lining: temporary relief from the burden of overtourism.
Nowhere is the difference more clear than in the now-deserted alleys of the Wallen, as the red-light district is called. It is a major tourist draw, famous for the sight of sex workers soliciting from behind their windows and the many coffee shops where visitors can light up a joint. Here, noise is permanent, and nuisance a given. Tourists often leave trash and urinate in public.
“It’s just lovely. I’ve lived here five years, and I’m now getting to know neighbors I didn’t know I had. They used to blend into the crowd,” she says. “Now, when the sun is out, people take a chair and sit out front. It’s so gezellig,” she continues, using the common Dutch adverb that translates to “having a good time together.”
“It’s like the city is ours again,” she says, echoing a common sentiment among Amsterdammers who feel like their interests had become subordinate to those of visitors.
Seeing the pristine metropolis, many citizens feel like they are wandering through the Amsterdam of the past. Tim Verlaan, an assistant professor of urban history at the University of Amsterdam, draws a parallel to what it looked like in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“The lockdown, of course, is unprecedented. But many Amsterdammers are reminded of a time when the city first and foremost was a place to live, and not to consume or play tourist,” he says.
Through a combination of economic prosperity, a lowered crime rate and shrewd marketing, tourism to Amsterdam exploded. Global trends contributed further. Airfare became ever cheaper as the traveling middle classes of Europe and the United States were joined by those in Asia.
From the 21st century on, the balance in the inner city was definitively skewed toward visitors. Hotel rooms multiplied, streets felt permanently overcrowded. The canal cityscape became the domain of tours, ticket offices and souvenir shops. And perhaps the biggest offense to locals? The ever-multiplying sellers of ice cream and waffles sauced with Nutella chocolate, now the dreaded symbol of a monocultural tourism industry.
Last year, 9 million tourists, mostly foreigners, visited Amsterdam, a city of 820,000 people.
With tourism down and out, many are hoping things will be different after the current crisis.
“This is such an opportunity to reflect on where we go from here,” says Els Iping, spokeswoman for VVAB, an organization that protects cultural heritage in the inner city and has been a vocal advocate of restoring the balance in favor of residents. “We are proud of our city, and we like to see others enjoy it. But the superficial type of tourism that has people pay pocket change to fly out here has to stop.”
“You’ll likely see changes already in the making accelerated by this crisis,” Verlaan says.
To be on the safe side, Iping’s organization is already petitioning the city to stick to its guns. “Some in the tourism industry, of course, will now want to reverse these policies, citing the need for economic recovery,” she says.
“But almost everyone else agrees that Amsterdam should seize this moment to never return to the old situation again.”
I’ve wonder if the people who live in colonial Williamsburg feel the same way.
If you wonder why people live in tourist traps seem to hate tourists, this is it.