What is overtourism and why is it such a gigantic problem in Amsterdam?
Amsterdam is experiencing a phenomenon called “overtourism”. But what is overtourism? And what can you do to become a more responsible traveler? Read on to learn more!
There are many reasons why Amsterdam is a must-see for tourists from around the world, year after year. It has a little bit of everything!
The quaint winding canals and skinny row houses are like something from a storybook. This dreamy mood is heightened at night when the city is softly lit by the warm incandescent bulbs that line the streets.
Then there's the iconic tulip fields with multicolored bulbs that wave gently wave in the breeze. The perfect FOMO inducing instagram photo just waiting to be taken.
And while Dutch cuisine will not personally be counted as a highlight of my time in the city, I would like to spare from judgment the combination of bitterballen and cornichons washed down with a pint of Juliper. This is a classic you can’t pass up!
However, your trip to Amsterdam wouldn’t be complete without witnessing (or being the cause of) some classic Dutch bicycle road rage. This usually takes the form of aggressive bell ringing, and possibly some cursing, as tourists mindlessly wander into the bicycle paths.
What’s not to love?
Impacts of Overtourism in Amsterdam
Unfortunately, there is a seedier side to the tourism boom in this charming European destination. As many who are even vaguely familiar with Amsterdam will know, there is a perception that “anything goes”, particularly when it comes to drugs, sex, and alcohol.
By no means am I condemning individuals who flock to the city to partake in its more exciting offerings. What is rather more upsetting is the behavior that ruins it for everyone else just looking to have a good time.
City residents have increasingly reported what they call the “anti-social” behavior of tourists: public urination and vomiting, littering, drunkenness, and excessive noise.
I’m sure this annoyance is compounded by the fact that most local residents are probably paying a lot to live there since the peak in short-term vacation rentals have induced a bit of a housing problem. With more and more properties being taken up by Airbnb’s, there are less apartments and houses available for residents to rent or purchase.
Read my blog to learn more about the impact of Airbnb’s on local economies and get some helpful alternatives.
And with more tourists coming in, and local residents being pushed out, the more Amsterdam’s city center feels more like a theme park than a place where people live, which certainly takes away some of the charm that travelers are looking for.
This unchecked form of tourism is what is called “overtourism”. This blog from Responsible Travel does a great job of defining overtourism.
There aren’t many cities like Amsterdam that have legalized sex work and posession and sale of (some) drugs so some people might assume that other popular cities don’t really experience these kinds of problems.
While you might be right that Amsterdam’s breed of overtourism is unique, you would be wrong to assume it’s the only city experiencing this phenomenon. There are unfortunately many other destinations experiencing overtourism, too.
One of these examples of overtourism is Venice, Italy.
As a result of it being packed to the gills with tourists, Venice has faced major touristic, cultural, and environmental paradigm shifts in the last 20-30 years as it has tried to cope with everything from climate change to cruise ships.
What is Being Done to Prevent Overtourism?
First off, Amsterdam is addressing the housing problem in the city center head on.
Now residents must register their Airbnbs with the local government, leading to a huge reduction in Airbnb’s on offer. Also, no more new hotels!
Overtourism has also led to the Amsterdam tourism council to enact measures to manage rather than promote tourism to Amsterdam as well as the city introducing a limit on tourists that visit Amsterdam.
Additionally, as of 2020, tours of the red-light district are suspended, as sex workers were increasingly being made uncomfortable by the masses of oggling tourists and other disrespectful behavior.
In other cities, local governments are doing some of the following:
reducing the number of permits handed out to new businesses that cater to tourists
introducing or increasing tourist taxes
handing out more/higher fines for bad behavior
placing daily limits on the number of tourists that can visit a park, destination, or historical/natural site
dispersing people from hot spots
boosting the promotion of lesser known destinations
Overtourism is Also Bad for Tourists!
While the focus of this blog is the impacts of overtourism in the bigger picture, let’s not forget that overtourism is also bad for tourists!
What do so many travelers say when they come back home and are asked for the gazillionth time, “What was the best part??”
And you say, “Oh, you know, the food, the people, the history!! Everyone was so nice. It. Was. Incredible.”
And it’s not cliche or overwrought to give this answer because, for most people, it’s all true! And it’s why so many of us travel in the first place, right? To try new food, meet new and interesting people, and to see cool places.
What do most travelers - and the people who live there - not love?
Tourist traps serving Americanized versions of local food.
Souvenir shops selling mass-produced trinkets.
Hoards of people aggressively jostling for position to get a picture of themselves at a famous location.
Missing out on seeing your bucket list spots because it’s closed or overcrowded.
These are some things that are caused by overtourism and can also make it difficult to do effective slow travel.
4 Ways Travelers Can Reduce Overtourism
As international tourism returns to pre-pandemic levels, this is a great time for tourists and the tourism industry to reconsider how we travel and what we can be doing better.
The overall advice for individuals is to consider what it means to be a responsible traveler and, since this is a slow travel blog 😉, I recommend doing slow travel. This means leaving your destination better than you found it.
1. Consider where you travel
Go to lesser known places! I recently went to Utrecht, a city just outside of Amsterdam, and I genuinely sometimes forgot I wasn't even in Amsterdam. It was so similar! This is one alternative to Amsterdam I would absolutely recommend.
Likewise, many cities’ tourism councils and groups are now pushing promotion to smaller, but equally interesting, cities near the popular destinations. This is both to reduce traffic to hotspots but also spread the wealth to other cities that have just as much to offer as their popular counterparts.
To be honest, some of the best memories I’ve made traveling are in places that no one has ever been to or heard of.
<-- Here are a few places I have personally been to and found to be great alternatives or day trips to get a break from the crowds.
2. Consider when you travel
While this won’t be possible for everyone, try not to go places during their peak seasons. Do a little research to find your destinations peak season(s) and try to either get on the cusp of that season or visit totally off-season.
My partner and I planned a trip to Costa Rica in the rainy season and everything we read indicated this was a terrible decision. Against our better judgement, we went anyways and had a fantastic time!
The forests were so vibrant and green and we had practically everything (beahces, restaurants, activities) to ourselves because there were so few tourists. While it is harder to book outdoor activities since some locations will be washed out, we were still able to do zip lining, horseback riding, day and night-time treks, and swim in the ocean (that was bath water temp!).
Need some out-of-season destination inspiration? Here’s a couple other suggestions:
Rome, Italy: Avoid crowds and get the best weather, visit in the shoulder seasons (March-May, September-November, NEVER go in August)
Cusco, Peru: Get the best prices and weather visit in the fall (September-December)
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico: Visit in the shoulder seasons to avoid snowbirds and students on summer break (March-May, September-November)
3. Stay local and spend local
If you do travel to a popular destination in peak season, make sure you’re spending responsibly.
This essentially means you should spend less money at international chain businesses (H&M, McDonald’s, Walmart, Starbucks, etc.) and insead buy from the little corner cafe, local clothing boutiques, independent grocers, and family-owned restaurants.
By making sure your money stays in the local economy, you can offset some of the impact your presence has had on that community.
Also, try to find hotels and rentals that are owned and run by locals. The same goes if you’re renting an Airbnb. Try to find hosts that are individuals and not property management companies advertising 10+ properties.
4. Be informed about local cultures, customs, scams, and more!
Did you know tipping in Japan is considered an offense? Do you know how to say at least basic phrases in the local language? Do you know not to wander into the freakin’ bike lane and risk aggravating a Bicycling Dutchman???
This might seem like a confusing addition to the overtourism prevention list but simply by being aware of local cultural quirks and customs, you are increasing your respect for that place and its residents and making sure your presence has a positive impact as opposed to a negative one.
And scams are another product of overtourism! So by being knowledgeable of common scams, you can avoid them, discourage scammers, and prevent more tourists from being taken advantage of in the future.
While Amsterdam and other cities are struggling to handle their overtourism problems, things are getting better! Tourists in general want to be more responsible and travel more sustainably. If you found my blog, then you're one of these awesome travelers who desires more authentic experiences abroad, too.
Worried about your contribution to overtourism? Don’t be! By simply reading this blog and becoming aware of these issues you’re already one step closer to being a more courteous traveler.
Do you feel ready to tackle overtourism? If so, where will you go next and what will you do or not do? Leave a comment below!