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How Amsterdam wants to change its image

Andreas Kirchhoff
July 21, 2023

Amsterdam has banned smoking cannabis in public and is imposing fines to get rid of party tourists. Can the city change its party tourism reputation?

A sign that forbids tourists from smoking weed in Dutch.
Signs around Amsterdam forbid tourists from smoking cannabisImage: Andreas Kirchhoff/DW

"No smoking cannabis in public!" read signs hung around Amsterdam's red light district, or De Wallen, as it is called in Dutch.

According to a new law that went into effect in May, tourists and locals caught smoking marijuana in and around this neighborhood could now get a fine of €100 ($112). The Dutch city is cracking down on the growing number of party tourists who have been clogging the streets, especially in the red light district.

Other fines can be imposed on people who drink alcohol on the street or urinate in public.

Cannabis canal cruise

DW spoke to a young tourist from Newcastle, England, who was waiting at the Oudesijds Voorburgwal at the pier of the Smokeboat. The man said he came to Amsterdam to smoke weed on vacation and have some fun. On this special boat ride, he will be allowed to consume marijuana legally. The boat departs with a dozen tourists for an hourlong tour of the canals, including sightseeing and pot smoking.

Another Englishman whom DW interviewed said he had come to Amsterdam for a gardening fair and was now enjoying his day off with a visit to the red light district. Joint in hand, the man said he knew consuming cannabis in public was illegal, but didn't think there were any police officers around to hand out fines.

A boat in front of a line of typical Amsterdam houses
Special boat rides allow passengers to smoke weed while enjoying the viewsImage: Andreas Kirchhoff/DW

Party tourists not welcome

On this warm summer day in July, the old town is bustling. It seems to be almost as crowded as it was before the pandemic. After all, Amsterdam is an attractive tourist destination for more than just partygoers. Its quaint 17th century townhouses and canals are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and its museums are world-class.

Back in 2021, the city capped the number of stays per year at 20 million to help limit the number of visitors. But the volume of tourists is just one of Amsterdam's problems. More worrying for city officials and many residents is the growing number of party tourists who noisily roam the narrow streets of the center at night. To combat the excess of party tourism, new rules were put in place this February — among them, a law that states that window brothels, bars and pubs in the red light district must close two hours earlier.

A bike with a sign for the Smokeboat.
A bicycle is used as an advertisement for a 'smokeboat' in AmsterdamImage: Andreas Kirchhoff/DW

Just recently, Amsterdam city council decided to close a cruise ship terminal near the center to further limit mass tourism.

And several months ago, the city launched a "Stay away" campaign to deter rowdy visitors. It initially targeted British men between the ages of 18 and 35 and featured a series of short videos depicting nights out gone wrong. 

According to a survey, visitors from the UK are particularly prone to unrestrained cannabis consumption. The videos suggest that many of their nights out end up at the police station or in hospital.

'Stop the madness'

Els Iping from the residents' initiative "Stop de gekte," or "Stop the madness," believes that such campaigns and small changes are good first steps but by no means enough to change the overall situation. She stresses that there are ordinary residents living in the historic center of Amsterdam, which has become tourist hotspot. Iping herself has called the city home for 40 years and has often had to clean her outside staircase of vomit spewed by intoxicated tourists.

Many visitors to the center don't come to marvel at the beautiful old town, says Iping. Instead they come for "prostitution, coffee shops, and drug dealers."

She does not accept the idea that the liberal use of cannabis and prostitution are simply part of Amsterdam. "There have been window brothels since the 1960s, but when I moved here it was still a fringe phenomenon. Back then, there were many other shops and businesses here. Today, it's all about sex, drugs and fast food."

Hostility after restrictions

For a while, members of the "Stop de gekte" residents' initiative made their own rounds in the neighborhood. Wearing yellow high-visibility vests, they approached raucous party tourists and informed them that the old town is home to ordinary people who need their night's rest. Most tourists reacted kindly to these warnings and apologized.

Recently, the residents' initiative stopped its night watch. Iping says the local businesses, which must now close two hours earlier, have blamed them for their financial losses and harassed and insulted them. She has received many unkind comments from those whose business is affected by the new regulations.

People stand outside a theater and other buildings Amsterdam.
For many locals, noisy party tourists are unwelcomeImage: Andreas Kirchhoff/DW

Tourism and hedonism

Geerte Udo, the head of marketing company Amsterdam & Partners, says she no longer has to do any city marketing, since Amsterdam is so well-known. But she admits that the excesses of mass tourism have become a problem in recent years. "In any city you should respect the local culture — we might have lost sight of that a bit in the last 10,15 years." 

Amsterdam wants to counter annoying  party tourists not only with bans and rules, but also by changing the structure of the city. For years, there have been proposals to ban the consumption of cannabis for tourists and to move prostitution from the red light district. By the end of 2023, a new so-called "erotic center" for sex workers will be opened in a suburb of Amsterdam.

Dutch say no to party tourists

The plan has been opposed by many locals and sex workers who say that its location on the outskirts will harm their livelihoods and also be more dangerous for the sex workers at night.

And as for the coffee shops, residents like Els Iping are demanding that the city simply apply the law. According to Dutch law, cannabis can be sold only to people who are resident in the Netherlands — until now, Amsterdam has essentially tolerated consumption of cannabis by non-residents.

When asked if the new rules such as the earlier closing times have changed anything yet, Els Iping answers in the affirmative: "The people who live here in the heart of the red light district have noticed that it's gotten a little better, especially at night."

This article was translated from German.