"What exactly is overtourism? Also known as mass tourism; it’s defined by huge crowds of people visiting a destination — in Amsterdam, that huge crowd numbers at almost 20 million a year."
A few weeks ago, I went on a jog through Dam Square. Prior to coronavirus, this would have been physically impossible.
The famous square sits in the heart of central Amsterdam. Walking through, you’ll typically hear suitcase wheels squeaking over cobblestone, pigeons shitting, and drunk lads tumbling out of red-lit windows.
Dam Square is kind of like Times Square, minus the hot dogs and £19,320-per day lights installation. If you live in Amsterdam, you don’t really go there if you can avoid it, and trying to bike through the crowds of tourists is as pointless and infuriating as a Trump COVID-19 briefing.
The pandemic has seen a worldwide decrease in tourism: countries closed their borders, flights were grounded, and the world stayed home. The streets of Amsterdam, like many places, went pretty quiet, as our loudest inhabitants — the tourists — went missing.
Many cities around the world that similarly see overtourism all year round are, for the first time in decades, faced with a summer of having their city to themselves. While this is undeniably a refreshing change, for cities like Amsterdam whose global identity is intricately tied with bleary-eyed kids sitting in coffee shops and rowdy Brits puking in the canals, this could mean a complete cultural reinvention.
Overtourism isn’t as fun as it sounds.
According to Walter Christaller, a 20th century German economic geographer, we are currently in the Fifth Tourism Period. This period, a turning point for modern tourism, is defined by relative ease of travel afforded to developed countries regardless of socio-economic status (worth mentioning this is a very whitewashed theory — Christaller didn’t understand racism very well), advanced transportation, and the invention of overtourism.
Simply put, the Fifth Tourism Period is why I find soiled stag-do victims on my front step every Sunday morning.
What exactly is overtourism? Also known as mass tourism; it’s defined by huge crowds of people visiting a destination — in Amsterdam, that huge crowd numbers at almost 20 million a year.
The good thing about over tourism is that it brings in a lot of money — according to a 2018 survey by Statistics Netherlands (or CBS), foreign tourism was worth around €32.5 billion that year.
As far as over tourism positives go, that’s about it. The negatives are plenty.
Environmental pollution and habitat disruption, overcrowded cities, and a weirdly commercialized faux culture (two words: plush clogs) are just a few. These problems are exacerbated even further in developing countries who build up economies entirely dependent on foreign tourist dollars.
While certainly not the only European city facing overtourism, Amsterdam’s unique mix of liberal open-mindedness towards drugs, rational approach to sex work, and love of capital have created somewhat of a monster in tourism, and a resentment amongst its residents. A friend recently sent me a petition to stop overtourism. It reached more than 30,000 signatures, which is enough to start a referendum if the municipality doesn't take action.
This isn’t the first of its kind. Last year, the "City in Balance" program went into effect, which halted building new hotels and souvenir shops, ticket sales outlets, and those sketchy cheese shops where you can dress up like a Dutch milk maid. It also put a cap on the number of people allowed in Schiphol Airport at any given time.
Amsterdam has raised fines for minor offenses, like drinking alcohol and peeing in public. The government has also been cracking down on Airbnb, a platform that has allowed visitors to bypass the city’s expensive hotels.
Cheap accommodation is a good thing right? Sure, except when you’re an Amsterdam native whose neighborhood has been overrun by visitors. This kind of mass transience doesn’t allow for a local culture to develop and is alienating to those who have made the city their home for decades. These residents are far more likely to take care of their neighborhood than a group on a weekend bender.
This has led the local government to put restrictions on Airbnb — homeowners can only sublet their place for max 30 days a year. New measures might ban Airbnb rentals in certain streets completely.
I’ve been making jogs through Dam Square an almost daily ritual. I’ve got to enjoy it while it lasts — the tourists are already returning, I can hear their suitcases banging on the cobblestones as I type this.
On one visit, I saw a lone figure on the square: it was a guy dressed as the Grim Reaper, wearing an “I <3 Amsterdam” t-shirt and a fat blunt hanging out his mouth. As far as symbols go, this one’s not so subtle.
The thing about tourists is that you hate them when you’re not one. Having adopted Amsterdam as my home for 4 years — which basically makes me a less-enthusiastic tourist — I’ve always liked that Amsterdam has a gaudy side.
While I completely understand that the Dutch want their city back, the pushback on tourism isn’t so cut and dry. This is especially true when you take into consideration revenue loss, and the more complicated human effects, such as the sex workers who rely on tourists to make a living.
These sex workers, who had already lost 100% of their income thanks to COVID-19, rely on Amsterdam’s Red Light district as a safe space to work, and count tourists as their biggest stream of income. While sex workers were allowed back to work in early July — with strict rules enforcing hygiene, checking customers for symptoms, and “no kissing” — it’s predicted they’ll only expect to generate 30% of their normal revenue. If Amsterdam’s “clean up” goes as planned, this will be even lower.
It’s a similar story with the city’s coffee shops, who are also a target of local residents’ ire, and may fall victim to post-virus clean up programs. Back in February, CNN reported the Amsterdam local government was considering banning tourists from cannabis cafes, which would cut off a huge stream of revenue.
As Paul Wilhelm, the co-owner of one of the city’s oldest coffee shops, told Bloomberg:
“A tourist might be initially attracted by the coffee shops, but these people also book a hotel, visit a restaurant, and will go on a round-trip boat ride in the canals. They spend money. Economic times are going to be very tough in the years ahead, we also need jobs. You can’t have the idyll of a small village and be an economic metropolis at the same time.”
How do we keep the good, while using this unprecedented time to get rid of the bad?
Post COVID-19 travel must change and if we want to inhabit the Earth without irreversibly damaging it in the next century, we better make sure these changes are intentional and sustainable.
But what are we — the city goers who want to keep exploring the world in an ethical way — willing to give up to make sure this happens?
I’ll give this a good think this summer while I’m boating around the empty canals, traipsing around the museums, and breathing in vomit-free air for once.
Images: Georgina Ustik & Unsplash