Profiles Interviews

Managing mass tourism in a capital city

This interview first appeared in the think tank Centre for London’s publication, London Ideas. Read the full issue here:

Amsterdam faces a problem common to a growing number of cities, which are so attractive to tourists that they are threatened with being overwhelmed, even perhaps of losing their identities. What aspects of this most concern you?

In certain areas of the city centre at certain times of the week we have antisocial behaviour. Barcelona and Prague face the same challenge: people come to the city and the only thing they do is consume alcohol. They couldn’t care less about locals or the place. With antisocial behaviour, there is a sort of consumerism: people pollute, drink, and leave. And that is where you have to say, “No. This is an area where people live and work”.

Second, at certain times we have too many people using the same public space, which can create safety issues. In the red light district we face both of these problems at once. We have been an open and international city for almost 750 years and we want to stay open, but you have to look at the liveability of these areas.

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Then there is the issue of affordability. Airbnb felt like a good thing at first because it enabled a lot of creative people in the city to rent out their apartments and travel. Now we have investors who purchase houses and push up prices so that it’s almost impossible for locals to buy. I don’t want to blame Airbnb – although I think they should give something back – because the trend is broader. In London, too, you have investors buying in a way that makes the city unaffordable for young people. That can lead to areas where properties are largely unoccupied for much of the year. We need social cohesion, including in the city centre, and if there are empty buildings and owners who don’t feel responsible, you’re getting weak spots in your city.

What statutory recourse do you have, as opposed to simply nudging?

We have a high tourist tax in hotels, and a daily tourist tax: if you go on a canal boat, or a hop-on-hop-off bus, a percentage goes to City Hall. Our Netherlands and EU law means we can’t discriminate between locals and visitors, so a local who goes on a canal boat has to pay the taxes as well. The biggest challenge there is that museums are getting more expensive for locals.

City Hall is bringing in a law that if you buy a house, someone has to live in it. We already have a rule that restricts the days you can rent out your home on Airbnb to 30 days a year. And we are working with the EU on policy that would give cities more control over private holiday rental.

What can you do about antisocial behaviour?

We have launched an Enjoy and Respect campaign, which makes clear that visitors are welcome in our city, but they must behave with respect for local community and the city. We are working on this with City Hall, the police department, the enforcement department, business, and locals. From the time you start thinking about Amsterdam, you start seeing messages; you see them in the airport, and in bars. If you’re the target audience, (a male aged between 18 and 34, from the Netherlands or the UK), and you open up a Google route in certain areas, you see the same messages.

We also have to enforce the law. Penalties alone won’t work. But not giving penalties won’t work either. You have to make people aware that this is an area where people live and work.

Amsterdam Marketing recently changed its name to amsterdam&partners. Did that reflect a desire not to attract more visitors? 

To a lot of people, marketing means more. Our focus is on making the city liveable. For that we need to guide locals, business people, and tourists around the city, including into a wider area where they may not previously have gone. We are trying to look at tourism in a more holistic way: cities are first of all places to live and to work. If you make that your priority, people will come. Our aim is to make Amsterdam a liveable, loveable, prosperous and sustainable city for everyone. We operate under the motto ‘I amsterdam’ to communicate our pride in the city, our sense of its reputation, and its importance to locals, business and visitors.

Is there a saturation point for tourism in Amsterdam?

I don’t have a glass ball, so I don’t know. But I think we do have to think about this – what if, in five or ten years, the amount of people who want to visit your city centre is really too great? We have to invest now. What can we do with new technology?

For example, could you have a mobile visa, so that if you didn’t have a visa for a certain spot, you couldn’t buy tickets for the museums? I’m not saying that’s necessarily the answer but you hear people saying we have to halve the flights from Schiphol, and I don’t believe that’s the solution. I think flying less is very important from a sustainable perspective and very cheap airplane tickets do make city trips easier. But we should not forget that tourists will find other ways of traveling if flights go down in number. The solutions also have to do with human behaviour: you see it in Venice, where there are sometimes streets that are oppressively busy but to the right and left it’s quiet.

Has this tactic of promoting different areas of the city worked? 

Yes. It usually starts with a creative hotspot, which is created and discovered by locals, then you get some new housing and you have to challenge other locals to go there and discover it. If locals start visiting then others will follow. You can’t spread tourism to areas where locals don’t go. For example, on the east side of the city we have more hotels now. People also stay there at night and try the restaurants and bars. The problem is that we have areas where 15 years ago no one would buy a house and now the housing is unaffordable – so yes, the placemaking worked, but the market’s growing so fast that the pressure on the city centre isn’t reducing.

To what extent can you plan ahead?

We are investing in data and artificial intelligence because we believe if you want to guide people to discover other areas and take pressure off some public spaces, you need to know better what their needs are. We know that a first-time visitor to Amsterdam will go to the Van Gogh Museum first, and then to the canal district. But we can guide them, suggesting a different route, or that they do it the other way round. If a visitor has been to Amsterdam many times before, they may want to go shopping in local neighborhoods. We have other stories for them; but first we have to find out how we can reach out to all these different people.

Do business visitors exacerbate the problems or are they a completely different issue?

We have one huge convention centre and a lot of smaller venues and we’re doing very well in the market. The behaviour of business visitors is different—most behave well. Most stay in higher class hotels, most are inside during the day, and 40 per cent of convention visitors go to the museum, so we know they invest in our cultural infrastructure as well. Plus, the convention centre is on the south side, not in the city centre.

We’ve shifted the focus from quantity to quality. We have some huge conventions with 60,000 visitors. Partly because of the arrival [from London] of the European Medicines Agency, we’re focusing on the life sciences industry. We want to attract companies that are active in life sciences or sustainability, with conventions we can connect to our startups and our challenges, and which have a broader effect than moneymaking.

What can London learn from your experience?

Both cities are fortunate in that we are not wholly dependent economically on tourism. Unlike some cities, there are lot of other economic pillars. It’s important not to see tourism as an isolated economy. In the past, our focus on the problems of tourism meant we didn’t always get the right solutions: locals here dislike the monoculture of tourist shops, for example, but their spread also has to do with people no longer using their local shops, the baker and the butcher. They’re going to the cheap supermarket instead, of getting deliveries. You have to look at the whole picture.

The big shift in the last five years has been that we used to say that Amsterdam is a city of locals, businesses and visitors; now we say that locals definitely come first. The visitors and business conventions are welcome if they add value to the Amsterdam area and respect the locals.

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