Amsterdam has long been a draw for millions of tourists from Europe and beyond, with many attracted to the city for its canals, architecture and museums and, of course, its plentiful cannabis-laden coffeeshops and unabashed sex industry.
But Europe’s so-called “city of sin” has not been the same since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, with tourism numbers sharply lower than previous years when the Netherlands’ capital could expect millions of visitors per year.
While many locals are loving the fact that they can wander and cycle through their city without dodging hoards of tourists, Amsterdam businesses that rely on visitors — such as coffeeshops, where cannabis can be openly bought and sold — are feeling the pinch, and there are fears that local authorities could soon clamp down further on their foreign customers.
“It’s been a quiet year, definitely,” Ben, who works at Barney’s Coffeeshop, told CNBC on Wednesday. “Obviously [it’s better] compared to last summer with the corona[virus], but this year it started getting busy but it’s still nothing compared to the years before. Only really French tourists have been coming over, French and Germans, not many English, not many Italians anymore.”
“I’m thinking now that the school holidays have finished I don’t think it’s going to pick up too much,” he added.
The Dutch tourism industry is still recovering and has a way to go before it sees pre-Covid levels of activity.
In the second quarter of 2021, turnover in accommodation and food services was 52.6% up on the same quarter of 2020 (a period covering the first lockdown). However, it was over 35% smaller relative to the second quarter of 2019, according to data in August from Statistics Netherlands, which added that “pre-Covid levels are still a long way off.”
Mike, a customer and retail manager for Green House which has several coffeeshops in Amsterdam, said that since the country had reopened and restrictions were removed, business had ticked upward but was still off its peak.
“The coffeeshops in the center are busy again … but it is still quieter compared to normal years, but it has been picking up in the last month,” he told CNBC Wednesday, noting that the coffeeshops had adapted to new rules, such as social distancing between tables and making use of outdoor terraces.
Mike noted the coffeeshops had “suffered a lot” during Covid-19 lockdowns over the past 18 months. The Dutch authorities initially announced that coffeeshops would have to close with short notice when the country’s first lockdown began last spring.
The government quickly reversed course, however, after lines formed outside coffeeshops. Customers wanted to stash supplies ahead of the closures, and the authorities feared that the sale of cannabis could quickly take to the streets and allow the illegal and unregulated drugs trade to flourish.
In the Netherlands, selling drugs is illegal but the Dutch government tolerates the sale of soft drugs in coffeeshops which are strictly regulated.
Still, despite being allowed to remain open, opening times were reduced and travel bans meant that a large proportion of their customers, tourists, were unable to visit until this summer when the Netherlands opened up travel to some nations.
However, there are still restrictions on visitors from some countries with higher Covid rates (like many, the Netherlands designated other countries with a traffic light system of red, amber and green depending on case rates) and PCR testing and quarantine rules in place for some, deterring many tourists further.
Locals enjoying the peace
Many locals have tired of the groups of younger tourists that come to Amsterdam for its soft drugs tourism and have enjoyed the lower numbers in the last 18 months.
Lieke, an Amsterdam resident with a young daughter, told CNBC she’d enjoyed the quieter city but didn’t think coffeeshops should be no-go areas for tourists, noting that “they will buy it anyway” which was illegal and carried with it other risks, and that to ban tourists would be discriminatory.
Otto, an economics teacher who also lives in Amsterdam, agreed that, as a resident, it was “very nice to get our ‘own’ city center back” rather than having to contend with “shouting and strunk” (stoned and drunk) tourists.
“It was also much more enjoyable to cycle around the city, without tourist cyclists with little cycle experience … All in all, things were much more pleasant actually,” he said.
Asked whether tourists were a nuisance when it comes to coffeeshops, Otto was unequivocal in his response: “Yes. Tourists who come specifically for the shops are generally not necessarily pleasant company.”
In particular, he said, Amsterdam had a problem with young tourists who, he said, “feel overconfident because they can smoke some weed legally, despite and because of their young age, they find it hard to take the right amount.”
More culture, less weed
The Netherlands’ capital attracts a wide range of tourists — from the inevitable groups of young people eager to experience the city’s coffeeshops to bachelor parties making the seemingly obligatory visit to De Wallen, Amsterdam’s main red-light district.
But the city also attracts culture vultures eager to visit the city’s museums and wander along its picturesque canals, just soaking up the city’s unique character. Local officials appear keen to clean up the city’s image as a party town and instead want to attract more of this latter group of tourists to the city.
Amsterdam’s Mayor Femke Halsema has gone further, proposing that the key attractions for certain tourists — the red-light district and coffeeshops — should be restricted.
Halsema has proposed that the city’s red-light district be moved to a purpose-built “erotic center” out of town and that foreign tourists should be banned from the city’s coffeeshops, who are understandably unimpressed with such proposals.
“They’re going to shoot themselves in the foot [if they do that], it’s not a good idea at all,” Ben from Barney’s Coffeeshop noted. “They’re going to lose half of the vibe that Amsterdam’s had over the last 20 years. It’s not just the coffeeshops that are going to suffer, it’s the hotels, the fast-food restaurants, everything.”
Likewise, Mike from the Green House coffeeshops group, said that such proposals to ban foreign tourists were “ridiculous” and “would lead to a huge reduction in tourism.”
“I think the emphasis on tourists that come here and visit coffeeshops is incorrect because just about everybody that comes to Amsterdam, at some point, is interested to visit a coffeeshop, even just to have a coffee. They just want to experience what it’s like and if you go to one of our coffeeshops it’s not just young English people who are drunk, in fact, most of the people smoking don’t even drink.”
“The culture has changed in the last 10 years, and we see every age in our coffeeshops, from people in their 70s to their 20s and people in their business suits coming in after work to relax for half an hour,” he said.