Over-tourism in Amsterdam, fact or fiction?

Amsterdam is a beautiful city. Since the end of the middle ages the city has been home to entrepreneurial traders with a talent for creating wealth. This has resulted in a unique city with a rich history. Moreover, Amsterdam has for years projected an image as the “City of Freedom”. Everything was possible and everything was allowed. One of the biggest trades in the city these days is tourism, but this seems to come at a cost. From the perspective of sustainable tourism one could wonder: is it too much? Is over-tourism in Amsterdam a problem?

The increased accessibility of the city, in the form of an influx of cheap flights, has lead to an ever increasing number of visitors. While initially the city and its inhabitants welcomed the visitors and their money, in recent years the burdens seem to be outweighing the benefits. The sound of a suitcase rolling over the sidewalks or the sight of tour guide entertaining a group seems to cause an increasing amount of irritation. This becomes apparent in the sentiment of the locals.

Is the problem of over-tourism in Amsterdam purely a statistical fact that can be reduced to numbers, or is there more to it? How does the sentiment of the local residents relate this problem?

History

Which key historical events have contributed to over-tourism in Amsterdam?

Amsterdam is a beautiful city with centuries of history. Much of its wealth was gained during the Golden Age when trade, science and art flourished. From an unimportant village the city grew to be the economic capital of Europe. The wealth brought with it a splendor that can still be seen today. In order to protect the growing city from capricious waterways around a network of canals was dug. The famous Canals of Amsterdam became UNESCO World Heritage in 2010.

Much of the wealth was gained through sea trade. When sailors came back from what was often more than a year at sea they had certain needs that needed fulfilling. The oldest profession in the world thus prospered. Amsterdam grew to be an openminded city and was the first to take a tolerant stance on cannabis in the 1970’s.

Combined, these two historical developments are what make Amsterdam a tourist destination today. Many visitors come to gape at the enormous canal houses and magnificent paintings of the Dutch Masters. Others come for the red light district and weed bars.

For decades there was a perceived balance between the local residents and the number visitors. In recent years cheaper flights have caused a surge in both groups of visitors. In fact, the decrease in flight prices can be tied directly to neoliberalism. In 1978 then US president Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act. This started a conversion in the market from public service to commercial entity. The main focus of the airlines became to sell as many tickets as possible. In the decades to follow this cascaded into the birth of so-called “budget airlines” or “low cost carriers” around the world.

Cheap flights are a contributing factor to over-tourism in Amsterdam and other destinations around the world.
Cheap flights are a contributing factor to over-tourism in Amsterdam and other destinations around the world.

A cultural interpretation of over-tourism

What happens if we explore the topic of over-tourism in Amsterdam from a cultural interpretation approach?

It is a clear and unequivocal fact that the number of international visitors to The Netherlands has skyrocketed. While in 2008 9.9 million international tourists arrived in our country, in 2018 this figure had nearly doubled to 18.7 million. By 2030 this number is expected to surpass 42 million. The influx causes issues for the most populair tourist attractions the country, one of them being Amsterdam. It has been argued that namely the trend of decreasing air ticket prices are at the core of the over-tourism debate.

The problem of over-tourism in Amsterdam, or elsewhere for that matter, is however only partly a tangible issue that can be reduced to numbers. Multiple studies of the UNWTO show a correlation between local perception and over-tourism. The same studies conclude that in order to influence perception it is important to involve local stakeholders (residents) to ensure the positive aspects of tourism remain visible. In fact, the majority of local residents in a number of surveyed cities thinks that there should be no limitations to the growth of visitor numbers and only a very small percentage considers tourism development and marketing should be stopped.

Let’s face it, cheap flights are probably here to stay. So while this issue does contribute to the cause of over-tourism, the (partial) solution might be in changing the perception of the local population towards visitors. As research suggests, residents surveyed tend to favor a number of measures including:

  • Improvement of infrastructure and facilities in the city. It is frustrating to have to compete with tourists for a spot on the tram on your daily commute, but if there is enough capacity for everyone this takes away the frustration.
  • Communicate with and involve local residents and local business in tourism planning. It is important that the local residents and local business who perceive the problem every day feel and understand their opinions matter.
  • Communicate better with visitors on how to behave in the city. If we ask the local residents to respect the tourists, we will need to ask the tourists to respect the local community.
  • Distribute visitors better over the year. Spreading will negate peaks and ensure local infrastructure capacity is enough.
  • Create city experiences where residents and visitors can meet an integrate. Rather than trying to keep the two groups separate, encouraging engagement will foster a better mutual understanding.

Conclusion

The number of tourists surely has increased over the past decades. This influx is caused by a combination of factors, in which the decreasing prices of air tickets have played a large part. It appears however that the hostile feelings local residents have towards tourists have increased exponentially in comparison. Print- and social media have contributed to this exponential growth of hostility. That in turn has caused local politics to take a stance in line with their electorate.

The solution to over-tourism in Amsterdam thus does not lie in limiting budget airlines or forcing an increase in air ticket prices. The problem should be tackled from a perspective of coexistence between local residents and tourists by managing and perhaps changing perceptions and behavior on both sides of the isle.

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