Cities across Europe are wising up to the potential problem of too many tourists. Those tasked with marketing an "at risk" destination are going to have to work harder to spread tourism over a wider area in order to dilute the potential negative impact.
Spend any time walking the streets of Amsterdam and you’ll quickly understand why it has a tourism problem. Trams, bicycles and pedestrians all vie for space on the narrow streets, presenting a daunting task for the millions of visitors that come to the city each year.
Amsterdam is blessed by many features that make it highly attractive as a destination. It’s compact enough to get around on foot and English is widely spoken. Low-cost airlines offer hundreds of flights a day into Schipol airport with tourists drawn to its liberal policies on sex and drugs as well as its many museums.
In 2015, the city welcomed 17 million visitors, representing an increase of 15 percent since 2011 and in the same time period the number of visitor days almost doubled to 139 million.
Tourists are going to keep coming and that presents a big problem for Amsterdam.
“I think the city and its residents are very actively thinking about the impact that tourism is having on their city, and how they want this impact to play out,” said Wouter Geerts, senior travel analyst at Euromonitor International. “Banning or capping tourists is not the way forward. Instead what is needed is a dialogue with all stakeholders to come to a mutually beneficial solution. This is what Amsterdam is trying to achieve.”
Expanding the City
Frans van der Avert’s office overlooks the IJ waterway that bisects the city. Throughout the day, the chief executive of Amsterdam Marketing spends his time looking out towards Amsterdam Noord, the once-unfashionable district, which in recent times has been growing in popularity thanks to plenty of open space and an eye-catching new museum.
With more tourists coming, Van der Avert’s job has moved from marketing the city to managing it, and one of the biggest challenges is getting repeat visitors out of the center to places like Amsterdam Noord.
“When you look at the foreign visitors, half of them are here for the first time. I don’t bother them with these new neighborhoods because we know that they want to see the Van Gogh and the canals and they go to the Anne Frank House, but when you are here for the second or the third or the fourth or the fifth time, you think ‘Oh.’,” he told Skift.
Van der Avert has an interest in spreading things around. He isn’t just responsible for visitors (he doesn’t like the word tourist) but also locals and businesses.
This gives him a very difficult balancing act and, as has been the case in other cities across Europe, a tourism backlash has started to develop.
“It started here three years ago, and it became ‘the’ topic in the city. It’s not only our problem. It’s a problem which you see happening in smaller historical cities with trading tradition, so no kings, no popes, no big lanes, no big boulevards, but small cities, merchant cities: Barcelona, Prague, Bruges, Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Venice. People always talk about Venice, but… I always see Venice as… not a living city anymore,” he said.
Van der Avert’s profile was lifted by a speech he made earlier this month at the World Tourism Forum in the Swiss city of Lucerne in which he issued a warning on the problem of overtourism.
“That is a challenge because we strongly believe that these three target groups—by accident are our target groups, so visitors, inhabitants, and companies—they form the DNA of the city. They make the city. They are the soul of the city because you have to have a city where you can work, where you can love, where you can eat, where you can visit, where you go to school. That is why people like visiting a city because it’s a lively city. It’s a livable city. So you have to keep the balance,” he said.
Van der Avert doesn’t want to attract any more visitors to the city, and t’s mainly because he doesn’t have to. Demographics are going to do that for him anyway. As the middle classes grow in places like China and India, there will be people interested in traveling abroad. There’s also the continued success of low-cost carriers, which makes flying between say London and Amsterdam very, very cheap.
There’s another factor making cities like Amsterdam so popular with visitors: Airbnb.
Sharing isn’t caring
The number of people staying in hotels continues to grow steadily and in 2015 the city welcomed 6.8 million guests, an increase of 2 percent compared with 2014. Provisional figures for the first nine months of last year show an even greater growth of 7 percent.
Traditional hotels are clearly still doing well and on top of this you now have home-sharing platforms like Airbnb, which didn’t exist a decade ago and have only relatively recently achieved sufficient scale to challenge the hotel industry. What started off as a sociable way to share your home has now turned into a big business.
In Amsterdam, the company has had to jump through a number of regulatory hoops to keep city hall happy, including collecting tax and imposing a limit on the amount of time hosts can share their homes.
“Airbnb has a very decentralized development; it’s different in every city,” said Jeroen Oskam, director of the Research Centre at Hotelschool The Hague. “What London and Amsterdam have in common is both are very expensive hotel cities, which means that they’re expensive Airbnb cities and it means investors who want to open up an Airbnb as a commercial venture, so to say, have a very strong incentive to do so.
“In those two cities it’s far more profitable to have an Airbnb, for instance, than a savings account, which leads to the commercialization of Airbnb.
While Amsterdam is — like most other European cities — very popular with users of Airbnb, there is some disagreement on the overall figures.
Airbnb put the number of nights booked at 770,000 for 2016, whereas Hotelschool The Hague puts it at 1.1 million.
Oskam said that both parties had similar figures for 2015 but were more than 300,000 nights booked apart for the following year.
(For the record, Airbnb disputes Hotelschool The Hague’s 2016 figure, saying it is “incorrect and highly misrepresents our community.”)
“They [Airbnb] have a financial interest in not disclosing the numbers because they pay tourist taxes,” Oskam said.
In 2014, Amsterdam became the first European city to agree a partnership with Airbnb. Among other stipulations, the deal also led to the home-sharing platform agreeing to “collect and remit tourist tax on behalf of hosts.”
Another deal was at the end of last year requires Airbnb to limit the amount of time hosts could rent-out their properties to 60 days per year. Interestingly, the signed document also commits both parties to “inform one another about their external communications.”
“If you present numbers that nobody can check, it’s not paying taxes. It’s just making a donation,” Oskam said.
Working it out
Amsterdam isn’t a unique case and there have been major backlashes against tourism in places such as Barcelona, where locals feel they are not being listened to.
The problem is now so acute that Van der Avert and his European colleagues have taken to meeting to discuss ways of dealing with it.
“In every city the rules are different, but sometimes problems are the same,” he said.
Tourism in cities such as Amsterdam is only going to grow and those in charge with managing it are going to come up with more creative ways to strike a better balance.
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Photo credit: The Vondelpark in Amsterdam. The city is trying to cope with increasing numbers of visitors. Vondelpark / I Amsterdam