European Cities See Life Without Crowds Of Tourists — And Want To Keep It That Way

AMSTERDAM ― Canals shimmer beside medieval cobbled streets and beneath the elegant (and mostly empty) bridges. There’s not even a whiff of cannabis in the air. 

Amsterdam’s red-light district is unrecognizable from a year ago, when tourists thronged day and night around bars, window brothels, coffee shops and souvenir sellers. The coronavirus shutdown has had a devastating effect on the city’s economy. A dearth of tourists left 55,000 hotel beds unfilled, with celebrated museums closed and souvenir shops shuttered. 

For a city where international tourists spent more than $7 billion in 2015 and more than 12% of jobs are directly in the tourism sector, this has been a huge financial blow.

But there’s a flipside. Many residents are re-embracing the quiet beauty of the city. As the city takes its first tentative steps towards reopening this month, some want to use the pandemic as an opportunity to create a permanent shift.

Amsterdam has been plagued with tourist overcrowding, accusations of “Disneyfication” and a shortage of residential housing as homes are converted into Airbnb vacation rentals.

AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Amsterdam’s red-light district is nearly deserted on April 24 after the Dutch government imposed regulations to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“Maybe [COVID-19] gives momentum to build up the visitor economy in a sustainable way,” said Geerte Udo, chief executive of amsterdam&partners, the city’s marketing organization. “We want to make sure the [tourism] industry has a more positive impact on a broader group of locals, not just a few big companies, to improve environmentally friendly mobility and consumption and long-term economic investment. We want a sustainable visitor economy that doesn’t harm the liveability of our city.”

Udo wants tourism to restart but with the “right” visitors, she said, which she defines as those who will respect the city and the people who live there rather than needing to be told not to drink, shout and pee outside

“Never waste a good crisis,” Udo said. “[COVID-19] makes it very clear how valuable the visitor economy is. … But we do not want to go back to the pre-corona time.”

Amsterdam’s story echoes around Europe. Tourism is the lifeblood of many of the continent’s historic cities, contributing around 11% to the European Union’s gross domestic product and accounting for 12% of employment.

But it’s a double-edged sword. As tourist numbers have swelled ― encouraged by cheap flights and a rash of accommodation options through platforms such as Airbnb ― so too have the problems, from drunken crowds creating an extreme nuisance to residents being forced out of city centers as housing prices soar. Angry locals have taken to the streets in cities including Venice, Prague and Barcelona to protest what many see as an assault on their daily lives.

The EU predicted that the tourism industry could slump up to 70% because of the coronavirus. But many hope the pandemic will end up changing tourism for the better.  

“The crisis is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for change,” Barbora Hrubá, a spokesperson for Prague City Tourism, told HuffPost. 

The capital of the Czech Republic has seen tourist numbers balloon from around 2.6 million in 2000 to 8 million in 2019, filling the relatively small city and putting a huge strain on resources. 

Joerg Steber via Getty Images

A crowd of tourists in the Old Town of Prague.

As with Amsterdam, Prague is keen to try to ward off the kind of antisocial tourist behavior that has become common on the city streets. “We are not looking to attract the same amount of visitors as before the crisis because Prague was struggling with overtourism and its disadvantages,” Hrubá said. “We will be working to change the city’s reputation ― currently seen in some parts of the world as a cheap party destination ― and to attract visitors mainly interested in culture and heritage.” 

Barcelona, which has seen protests against overtourism, is also hoping to rebuild from the pandemic in a way that tackles some of the problems tourism has brought.

The city’s deputy mayor, Janet Sanz, expects a third of licensed tourist apartments in the city to return to the normal rental sector in the next three years as a result of a changed tourism industry post-pandemic. “What tourist apartment owners want now is stability, and they can find it through conventional rents, which in addition can help to solve the housing needs of our city,” she said. “We now have a chance to rethink the city.”

Laura Calonge/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A protest in Barcelona against gentrification, short-term rentals and tourism.

In Amsterdam, many of the calls to rethink the city are aimed at reducing the antisocial behavior of some tourists, who crowd its narrow streets on nightly bar crawls and vomit outside residents’ doors and into the canals. 

Taking away some of the reasons people travel could help the city “regain control of some kinds of visitation and the behavior that goes along with it,” said Jos Vranken, managing director of NBTC Holland Marketing, the Dutch tourist board. 

This might mean changes to the red-light district, a primary draw for many tourists. Vranken believes the capital will seriously consider measures such as restricting access to cannabis cafes to locals and ending street window displays, with the stated aim of protecting sex workers from tourists who gather just to photograph and stare at them. There is also a suggestion to move the windows to another area, a proposal that has been resisted by sex workers, many of whom see the red-light district as a safe place to work and who worry about the implications of driving sex work underground.

AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File

Tourists pack Amsterdam’s red-light district. In January, the city banned tours past the windows where sex workers pose to rein in the nuisance of overtourism.

There are also plans to change the layout of the city. Mayor Femke Halsema warned that the city of 800,000 residents simply cannot take the 9 million overnight tourists who visited last year if everyone needs to keep 5 feet apart (the distance prescribed under Dutch lockdown rules). She has proposed dramatically changing the city’s traffic system, giving over whole streets to cafe terraces and pedestrians.

She openly voiced her concerns as the national government began taking steps to open the borders to pleasure tourists again, starting June 15.

Crowd control measures may be used to help social distancing. “The current [pandemic] protocols are all geared to changing our behavior in the public space,” Vranken said. “Knowledge about visitor management and crowd control – perfected by Disney throughout their theme parks – will be widely adopted to steer, nudge and control crowds.” 

People may take it upon themselves not to visit the most crowded places that could endanger their health, but other ideas are also under discussion. 

Udo is pondering the idea of a digital city card as a kind of visa to permanently limit numbers and control access to attractions by scheduling bookings in time slots — although the details are currently hazy and would need to comply with European privacy regulations.

Overtourism has also exacerbated another big problem in the city: affordable housing. An explosion in the number of apartments being flipped into vacation rentals has been blamed for shortages and price increases for locals. 

Last year, Amsterdam joined several other European cities asking for help from the European Union to tackle the effects of short-term vacation rentals. “Where homes can be used more lucratively for renting out to tourists, they disappear from the traditional housing market,” said a statement from the city of Amsterdam, which added: “Prices are driven up even further, and housing of citizens who live and work in our cities is hampered.”

Dean Mouhtaropoulos via Getty Images

The Netherlands will open its borders for tourism on June 15. The mayor of Amsterdam has proposed changing how the city accommodates tourists in an era of social distancing.

Even before COVID-19 measures were being taken. Amsterdam was requiring permits for all short-term rentals. The city will completely ban vacation rentals in three central neighborhoods beginning in July. This could be extended to other areas in the future, said Laurens Ivens, the capital’s head of housing.

Since the coronavirus started, 21% more houses were offered for long-term rent in The Netherlands than in the same period last year, an increase ascribed to the decline in use of Airbnb, according to real estate agent association figures.

“In recent years, we’ve seen districts groaning under the weight of tourism,” Ivens said. “In Amsterdam, one in 15 houses has been offered on Airbnb, and around 80% of the residents of Centrum [the city center] have experienced a lot of or regular nuisance from holiday rentals. So in the areas where liveability has been most under pressure, from July 1, holiday rentals will be banned. The peace and silence the city experienced because of the coronavirus also means that the city belongs to its residents again.”

Of course, the flatlining of tourism has had a big economic effect. Last year, Amsterdam took in 133.6 million euros ($152 million) in tourist taxes, and some experts predict that it will lose around 125 million euros ($141 million) of taxes this year. That represents a big hole in the city budget. Long-term measures to limit tourism once countries reopen could make it hard to recover to pre-pandemic levels. 

Those whose livelihoods depend on tourism are certainly worried. In Amsterdam’s red-light district, a solitary tourist shop open on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal street is no longer at the center of the party. “For now, it’s open again, but no tourists come,” said shop worker Sabi Riahi, cleaning the already-clean floor. “Tomorrow, I don’t know.”

Halsema said the solution is to look beyond a reliance on tourism and to stimulate the local economy by bringing Amsterdammers back to the areas that had become a tourist monoculture and supporting a diversity of local shops and businesses. The city is also considering buying up property to make housing more accessible. “The inner city of the future is not the inner city of the past. And we will not be driven by nostalgia,” Halsema said, according to a report in DutchNews.

There remains some skepticism that big ideas for overhauling tourism will be able to survive the lifting of lockdowns. Stephen Hodes, a member of the think tank Amsterdam in Progress, fears economic pressures will stop radical change, such as a complete ban on vacation rentals and hotel building. 

You are talking about a major shift in thinking, and given we are already in an economic crisis, the chances of this happening are very limited,” he said. “Everyone’s going to talk about jobs, jobs, jobs, which means hotels, airlines, tour operators.”

Tourism is at a crossroads, said Shaul Bassi, director of the International Center for the Humanities and Social Change at Ca’Foscari University in Venice, who acknowledged that COVID-19 has been a disaster for the tourism industry. Cities could return to the previous model of “tourism, tourism and more tourism,” he said. But, he added, “many others, including myself, see this as a precious window of opportunity to rethink and reinvent.” 

In Amsterdam, Hodes recently took an early morning walk through the red-light district and was stunned by its quiet beauty.

“It’s very slowly opening up now, but the absolute space and lack of people on the streets is amazing,” he said. “Of course, the city cannot exist on this level economically, but it’s amazing to experience. It’s an incredible opportunity and a wake-up call.”

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