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Covid-19 as a catalyst for change: Amsterdam is reinventing its tourism offer and practices

Roos Gerritsma

Challenges that Amsterdam was and still is facing are: a sense of loss of belonging, financializations of the housing market, a mono cultural shopping offer and gentrification.

Photo: Nastya Dulhiier on Unsplash

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Amsterdam has around nine hundred thousand inhabitants and is known worldwide for its historical beauty, liberal lifestyle and tolerant, open atmosphere. The historic inner-city area with canals and churches are under UNESCO’s protection and is one of the main tourist attractions. With regards to the open character of the city, it absorbed many foreigners and refugees throughout the centuries. This resulted in a melting pot of cultures, religions, opinions and with over 170 nationalities today. Last decades the tolerant atmosphere manifested also in Amsterdam’s reputation as the backpacker/hippie place to be.

Amsterdam getting too crowded

Whereas tourist annoyances were hardly mentioned in a survey in 2002, “overcrowding” and “tourist related annoyances” topped the list of unattractive aspects of Amsterdam in 2012. That was even before the media started naming it the “tourist tsunami”. Changing urban lifestyles of residents of Amsterdam itself – from barbecuing at the canals to bootcamp sessions – have also exacerbated the pressure on public spaces and parks, leading to overcrowding of (semi) public spaces, increased littering and noise. We employ therefore the term overcrowding rather than overtourism as the former better reflects the root cause of the Amsterdam context. The reputation as a “city for all” started to fade and change on several fronts from 2014 on.

First, the growing numbers of visitors started to become a nuisance to locals. Above all in the centre of Amsterdam, albeit it depends on where the locals live. In 2019, Amsterdam welcomed 9,2 million guests and counted 18,4 million overnight stays. There were almost 29,000 Airbnb listings in 2018, with an estimated 0,8 million additional visitors and 2,7 million stays in Amsterdam. Based on these numbers, we estimate that Amsterdam had well over 10 million visitors in 2019. They stayed over 21 million nights, which means over 2.5 times the numbers of 2000.

The Center of Amsterdam is a different ballgame than the rest of the city, attracting high numbers of visitors. Per 1,000 residents, in 2019 the district accommodated 356 hotel beds, 69 unique Airbnb listings, 26 HORECA establishments, and 21 shops, of which most are serving visitors. Even though the residents are staying, they live in an area that targets visitors. Challenges that Amsterdam was and still is facing are: a sense of loss of belonging, financializations of the housing market, a mono cultural shopping offer and gentrification.

City in Balance

The municipality erected therefore a special work force called “City in Balance”. On the illustration below, one can find the main issues Amsterdam dealt with before Covid-19 that are tourism related:

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Secondly, the tolerance among locals towards drugs and the sex-industry is fading. That’s because in the city centre reported nuisances such as littering or noise are much higher than in any other part of the city. In addition to that, crime became more severe and policies to mitigate the problems led to a waterbed effect. An alarming report from Tops and Tromp in 2019 laid bare what the impact is of decades of laissez-faire policies. Amsterdam became seen as the drug capital of Europe and extensive social problems exist, pleading among others to stop selling drugs to tourists. The wish for tourists that add value is increasing.

The third key issue are community initiatives that strive for a sustainable and inclusive city by reinventing tourism practices. These initiatives are also examples that make use of the platform economy and as a political representation of groups, in a specific way. Rather than just looking at what the problems are, these initiatives are actively and constructively co-shaping or even co-designing alternative pathways to deal with the changing face of Amsterdam. New ways of city making have emerged. And they have proven to be effective in managing the new urban dynamics.

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Amsterdam during Covid-19

When Covid-19 hit the world, Amsterdam turned quiet. The amount of overnight stays dropped dramatically, following different lockdowns. I the end of January 2022, Amsterdam was just reopening after its fifth lockdown. Residents also became more aware of overcrowding thanks to Covid-19. It unvealed an Amsterdam that is more livable for its residents. Intriguingly in the first year of the pandemic, the discourse, e.g. in the media, was less oriented towards economy and loss of jobs, and more towards “we don’t want a back-to-normal”. It initiated several petitions to signal the local government that enough is enough, paving the way for debates and policy changes.

Tourism represents about 10 percent of Amsterdam’s economy, so this implies that many residents, entrepreneurs and employees were affected severely. Varying from losing their job, losing investors or having zero guests in their B&B. During the first lock down, the number of visitors at Schiphol Airport dropped by 90 percent. Hotels in Amsterdam welcomed only 3 million guests in 2020. Due to governmental aid, relatively speaking, most entrepreneurs could survive, but the question is: for how long? Strikingly enough, between lockdowns, it turned out to be very difficult to find suitable employees for leisure and tourism.

Reinventing tourism

A new way of city making can also be found within the realm of tourism and we relate this to the “Amsterdam Approach”. Its invention in 2016 helped Amsterdam to win the European Capital of Innovation Award. It is a holistic and multi-stakeholder (including policy makers) approach in which the Dutch tradition of consensus decision-making manifests. Covid-19 seems to be a catalyst of change, as most current tourism plans and initiatives already existed in 2019. We observed several grassroot initiatives and a mix with more established organizations that attempt to change the face of tourism. The aim is to transcend the dualism of tourism: economy vs. liveability. Their coping mechanism is to experiment with innovative, sustainable and inclusive forms of tourism. This process seems to unfold quite organically, with no leading actor in the driver’s seat.

Time will tell whether Amsterdam is truly able to reinvent itself and become more resilient in a regenerative way. For now, many signs are – literally – on green when looking at the changing tourism offer, policies, offer and expressed intentions. The question is: Are urban tourists searching for the same “new” Amsterdam?

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