Amsterdam and Rotterdam – overtourism and undertourism?

September 26, 2017 - Lorna

‘Overtourism’ has been very much the narrative of the summer.  From Venice to Skye the media have been picking up stories of sheer numbers of tourists overwhelming fragile places, discontented residents,  Airbnb inflating house prices and leading to the prospect of places becoming ‘theme parks’ inhabited only by temporary visitors. One has only to look at the “classic” holiday towns of Mexico , Cabo San Lucas and Tijuana  for examples of what constant streams of tourists can do to a city’s landscape and social climate. Before my decision to go to Amsterdam I read up this exact phenomenon on , I will still travel to Mexico but I will try to go the path less taken.

My experience earlier this year of Amsterdam certainly confirms the dangers of overtourism.  Central Amsterdam was presenting the ‘authentic’ experiences for which it is known – sex workers in shop windows and ‘coffee’ shops selling cannabis, hashish etc.  And it seemed to be working given the numbers of (particularly male) tourists of all ages in groups of all sizes, clearly out for a good time.  In fairness there was also a fair number of (slightly bemused) Asian and American visitors wandering around.

However you don’t actually have to step very far away from the centre to experience something different.  The museum quarter attracts cultural tourists in their thousands and the neighbourhoods surrounding the centre offer architecture, independent shops, cafes and restaurants on streets strung along canals. The peace interrupted only by hired boats of party people navigating the canals.

While Airbnb is accused of reinforcing the problem it is not necessarily always the case.  We stayed in a houseboat on a quiet canal 10 minutes from the centre, owned by a Dutch woman who relied on renting out half of her boat to finance her living in Amsterdam.  She was however thinking of moving on and told us that the pressure of tourism was creeping inexorably out from the centre.

I suppose the question is does it matter?  Amsterdam is clearly successful; tourists are coming year round and spending, creating jobs and wealth for the city.  Overtourism – if that is what it is – is fairly narrowly concentrated.  And perhaps if tourists are contained to certain areas it doesn’t affect the lives of locals too much.  But I think it does matter.  It tarnishes the image and reputation of Amsterdam as a sophisticated, civilised, international city which is a joy to visit and experience.  That will affect all kinds of things other than tourism, but even just in terms of tourism you have to wonder what effect it will have on the city’s appeal.  I’d certainly think twice before I returned or recommended it to others.

Amsterdam thinks it matters too. Residents are complaining and the local authority is contemplating a range of measures on how it might bring things more under control.

Its neighbouring city an hour away also thinks it matters.  Rotterdam is directly affected by Amsterdam residents moving there and driving house prices up, but also by a desire to avoid the same tourism impact.  Of course they want to grow visitor numbers but are painfully aware that who is coming matters.  Rotterdam is a young, cool, ethnically diverse city with a regeneration programme fuelled by culture and design (see the pic of the Markthal below – food market, venue, apartments, public art).  It is outward looking, seeking ideas and inspiration from other countries, experts and institutions as well as from its own people.  According to Rotterdam & Partners, the city’s private/public marketing agency, it wants to attract people who appreciate its energy, grittiness and aspiration, not those just coming to party.

It remains to be seen what happens to tourism in both Amsterdam and Rotterdam.  Once the genie is out the bottle can it be put back in? How easy is it be a successful tourism destination controlled by public authorities’ or residents’ wishes rather than what the market dictates?  But for now I’d be inclined to recommend Rotterdam rather than the capital.

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