If you’re planning a trip to Amsterdam, consider yourself on notice.
As “overtourism” threatens to overwhelm the city, the Dutch capital is actively telling certain travelers not to visit via what city officials are dubbing a “discouragement campaign.”
Three weeks ago, Amsterdam announced it would ban people from smoking marijuana on the streets in the Red Light District. The new regulations, which will take effect in mid-May, were introduced in response to complaints from residents about disruptive tourists who flood the district in the late hours and engage in antisocial behavior.
“Residents of the old town suffer a lot from mass tourism and alcohol and drug abuse in the streets,” the council said in a statement. “Tourists can also attract street dealers who in turn cause crime and insecurity.”
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“Nuisance tourists” no longer welcome
The council added that the atmosphere can “get grim, especially at night” when people loiter in the streets for a long time.
It’s not yet clear if the regulations will be extended to ban smoking on the terraces of the marijuana cafes in the Red Light District, though the council has said that is under consideration. The raft of new rules announced in February included a rule obligating prostitution businesses to close by 3am, and cafes and restaurants at 2am.
The move to tidy up the area is in line with a new tourism campaign Amsterdam is launching this year that aims to encourage more-responsible tourism while actively dissuading what the city describes as “nuisance tourists” from visiting. In other words, those who go to Amsterdam purely to drink alcohol and take drugs.
New measures on “feestbeest”
According to a public statement, the program’s aim is to “combat nuisance…international visitors with plans to ‘go wild’ in Amsterdam.” New measures on feestbeest (“party animals” in Dutch) – pub crawls, stag parties, stagettes and so on – will prevent raucous conduct in busy inner areas like Rembrandtplein, Leidseplein and particularly the Red Light District. Further measures – such as reducing the number of Airbnb rentals, hotels and river cruises – aim to dial down tourism overall, bringing annual overnight stays from 18 million to below 10 million.
Amsterdam is also increasing measures to discourage the sale of alcohol. Already, you can’t buy alcohol after 4pm between Thursday and Sunday – and the city is now requiring that alcohol be hidden from view or removed from stores during these hours.
“The aim of the discouragement campaign is to keep out visitors that we do not want. If we love the city, we must take action now,” says deputy mayor Sofyan Mbarki in the announcement. “In recent months, I have talked to many different groups: residents, businesses, experts and interest groups. From these discussions, it has become clear that…intervention is needed.”
From tolerate to regulate
Amsterdam, hailed as a highly tolerant, liberal city, has become increasingly regulated over recent years, especially in De Wallen, better known as the Red Light District. In 2008, the number of prostitution windows was cut from 482 to 243; 100 more will soon be moved to a multi-story “erotic center” on Amsterdam’s outskirts.
Critics, such as sex-worker advocate Justine le Clercq, accuse the city council of becoming increasingly conservative. “If you really want more safety for the [sex-work] industry, you provide several small locations and more opportunities to work from home, just like other freelancers are allowed to do,” she says.
Yet authorities say no moral judgment is involved in the curbing of disproportionate numbers of “men aged 18 to 34 that only come to party and use our city as a backdrop,” says city spokeswoman Carina Noordervliet.
“The streets in [Amsterdam’s city center] are very small and therefore much [more] crowded than, for example, the wide public spaces in Paris, London or Berlin,” she continues. “The discouragement campaign [is] targeted at a group of people who in general don’t contribute to the city in a positive way.”
So if you’re going to experience the city for its dynamic culture (in both daytime and nighttime), historic architecture, forward-thinking gastronomy and pristine natural spaces, here are some tips for having a fantastic time in the Dutch capital – while being respectful of local life.
Venture outside the city center
Amsterdam’s canals offer just one perspective on a fabulously diverse urban landscape that Noordervliet, the city spokeswoman, says many visitors don’t fully explore. It’s true that just a short tram ride or cycling adventure away from downtown, sprawling greenery abounds in the city’s wonderful parks. Explore divine lakes and meadows around the Bos forest. At Sloterpark and Westerpark, you’ll find plenty of space to picnic and even go swimming.
You can also take the five-minute ferry from Centraal Station to Noord, Amsterdam’s ultra-cool, up-and-coming warehouse district. Enjoy the seaside breeze while discovering street art and popping into industrial haunts like NDSM-Werf, an 84,000 sq m former shipyard hosting art galleries and restaurants.
Stay and travel green
Amsterdam is one of the world’s leading cities for smart mobility. Traverse the canals aboard a kayak, pedal boat or electric craft. Many tour operators, including Those Dam Boat Guys, offer zero-emission canal tours.
Afterward, retire to a hotel with a clear green focus. The brothel-turned boutique hostel Cocomama and local hotel chain Conscious offer organic meals, eco-friendly design and upkeep using sustainable methods and supplies.
Support Amsterdam’s “circular city” goals
A few years ago, Amsterdam announced it wanted to become the world’s first “circular city,” aiming for a waste-free (or “circular”) economy by 2050 using sustainable and renewable raw materials. As a visitor, you can support this by shopping locally and sustainably at vintage boutiques along the Negen Straatjes (Nine Streets), patronizing ecologically focused designers like Mercer and Property Of, and (especially) dining at eco-conscious restaurants like De Ceuvel, Foccaceria and Gartine.
Seek out socially responsible initiatives
Set out for a tour or activity that enriches local life. The world’s first sustainable-fashion museum, Fashion for Good explores the alarming impact of fast fashion. A percentage of ticket sales goes toward a same-named nonprofit that helps local designers become more sustainable.
With Plastic Whale, you can directly help clean up polluted waterways by “plastic fishing” from boats made of retrieved and recycled plastic waste. Or learn about the city’s lesser-known stories and social issues via Tours That Matter, which offers guided walks along such themes as colonialism and gentrification.
Meet the locals
You can really get to know the city on a walking tour that brings diverse Amsterdam voices to the fore. Mee in Mokum tours are led by volunteers of all ages (often, feisty grannies). Meanwhile, Rederij Lampedusa offers canal-boat tours in former refugee boats led by those who arrived during the refugee crisis.
See the Red Light District in a new light…
Scout out socially responsible initiatives in the Red Light District, such as the Condomerie, a boutique condom shop run by a safe-sex and HIV/AIDS-prevention foundation, or visit the sex-worker collective My Red Light’s mini-museum about De Wallen history. Grab a pint at the De Prael craft brewery, which employs ex-prisoners and those with a history of mental illness. Or time your visit with events such as the Red Light Jazz Festival, which highlights a different side of De Wallen’s culture.
…or go for a pub crawl in a different neighborhood
Amsterdam was the first city to appoint a nachtburgemeester (night mayor) to ensure that nightlife thrives even despite overcrowding. Several eclectic and lively after-dark establishments have popped up in recent years showcasing the vibrance and diversity that Amsterdam has to offer. In a revamped Noord warehouse, Sexyland World is an artists’ hub bringing together 365 businesses and organizations that hosts everything from roller-disco nights to poetry slams. At Amsterdam Roest, you can relax at an industrial shipyard–turned–beach bar, or join thousands of other ravers enjoying the beats at Warehouse Elementenstraat.
“There’s a much bigger picture of nightlife in Amsterdam than the Red Light District and other places to feel the pulse of the city,” says current nightlife mayor Ramon de Lima. “Instead of closing down clubs, the creative community and municipality are finding solutions…[showing] our culture of not ignoring problems but trying to solve them together.”
Respect the rules
Don’t forget that illegal acts are punishable by fine and enforced by patrolling officers. Smoking cannabis is not allowed on city-center streets, nor is lighting up tobacco indoors. Photographing sex workers is highly disrespectful, not to mention illegal. If you use common sense, your visit to Amsterdam is sure to be, as the Dutch say, lekker gezellig.
Which loosely translates to “absolutely freaking awesome.”