Amsterdam’s historic Red Light District is rife with English-language city signs admonishing tourists: “Don’t pee in the street”; “No alcohol in public spaces”; “Put your trash in the bin”; “Fine: 140 euros.”
But the cartoonish black-and-red warnings on the 17th-century canals look strangely out of place these days. There are no visitors to heed them.
Beginning in mid-March, when the Netherlands went into semi-lockdown to combat the covid-19 pandemic, tourism vanished from Amsterdam almost overnight. A social and economic crisis has hit the country and its capital hard. But for residents of Amsterdam’s historic city center, there is a clear silver lining: temporary relief from the burden of overtourism.
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Nowhere is the difference more clear than in the now-deserted alleys of the Wallen, as the red-light district is called. It is a major tourist draw, famous for the sight of sex workers soliciting from behind their windows and the many coffee shops where visitors can light up a joint. Here, noise is permanent, and nuisance a given. Tourists often leave trash and urinate in public.
But the Wallen is actually a primarily residential neighborhood. Charlotte Schenk, 35, lives in one of the brick canal buildings surrounding the monumental Old Church with her young family and has felt the changes firsthand. When asked what the current quiet means to her, Schenk’s face lights up.
“It’s just lovely. I’ve lived here five years, and I’m now getting to know neighbors I didn’t know I had. They used to blend into the crowd,” she says. “Now, when the sun is out, people take a chair and sit out front. It’s so gezellig,” she continues, using the common Dutch adverb that translates to “having a good time together.”
Schenk, an executive assistant for FedEx Digital, can work from home during these times.
“It’s like the city is ours again,” she says, echoing a common sentiment among Amsterdammers who feel like their interests had become subordinate to those of visitors.
Aart Jaeger, 74, who lives on the canals near the Anne Frank House, another major landmark, feels the same way.
“The cause of this crisis is very sad, but for us it’s a blessing in disguise,” says the retired economist, returning from an unusually quiet grocery run: “Tourism here has become too much. We are sick of it, just sick.”
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Seeing the pristine metropolis, many citizens feel like they are wandering through the Amsterdam of the past. Tim Verlaan, an assistant professor of urban history at the University of Amsterdam, draws a parallel to what it looked like in the 1970s and ’80s.
“The lockdown, of course, is unprecedented. But many Amsterdammers are reminded of a time when the city first and foremost was a place to live, and not to consume or play tourist,” he says.
Back then, Amsterdam was in decline, the result of an economic and demographic crisis. Concurrently, living preferences were changing: City folk were moving to the suburbs looking for space.
For Amsterdam, that meant looking for new sources of income. “Before the corona crisis, you often heard people say that the constant growth of tourism was like a force of nature: unstoppable. But it has, of course, been a matter of policy,” Verlaan explains. “The city government very actively promoted Amsterdam as a tourist destination.”
Through a combination of economic prosperity, a lowered crime rate and shrewd marketing, tourism to Amsterdam exploded. Global trends contributed further. Airfare became ever cheaper as the traveling middle classes of Europe and the United States were joined by those in Asia.
From the 21st century on, the balance in the inner city was definitively skewed toward visitors. Hotel rooms multiplied, streets felt permanently overcrowded. The canal cityscape became the domain of tours, ticket offices and souvenir shops. And perhaps the biggest offense to locals? The ever-multiplying sellers of ice cream and waffles sauced with Nutella chocolate, now the dreaded symbol of a monocultural tourism industry.
Last year, 9 million tourists, mostly foreigners, visited Amsterdam, a city of 820,000 people.
“The total quiet of the Wallen shows exactly how geared toward tourism that neighborhood has become. There are no shops left to serve residents,” Verlaan says.
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With tourism down and out, many are hoping things will be different after the current crisis.
“This is such an opportunity to reflect on where we go from here,” says Els Iping, spokeswoman for VVAB, an organization that protects cultural heritage in the inner city and has been a vocal advocate of restoring the balance in favor of residents. “We are proud of our city, and we like to see others enjoy it. But the superficial type of tourism that has people pay pocket change to fly out here has to stop.”
In recent years, subsequent city governments have gotten serious about curbing mass tourism. Marketing has been scaled back, rentals like Airbnbs are now banned in some neighborhoods, and an earlier ban on shops catering solely to tourists was recently upheld in court. More measures are coming.
“You’ll likely see changes already in the making accelerated by this crisis,” Verlaan says.
To be on the safe side, Iping’s organization is already petitioning the city to stick to its guns. “Some in the tourism industry, of course, will now want to reverse these policies, citing the need for economic recovery,” she says.
“But almost everyone else agrees that Amsterdam should seize this moment to never return to the old situation again.”