Like several other heavily visited European cities, Amsterdam experienced a dramatic pause in tourism during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the Netherlands’ borders closed and major attractions like the Rijksmuseum emptied of the usual throngs of international visitors, locals were able to reclaim the historic heart of the city.
Now, Amsterdam’s leaders are determined to permanently shift the economic balance between residents and tourists, and rethink Amsterdam’s free-wheeling image as a magnet for sex- and drug-seeking vacationers. “People who have lived here for a very long time feel estranged,” says the city’s mayor, Femke Halsema. “We do not want to become Venice or Dubrovnik, where your historical center has become a closed theme park. In the future it has to be a livable part of the city.”
Appointed to the post in 2018 as Amsterdam’s first female mayor, Halsema was previously the leader of the Dutch Green Left Party, and she feels her liberal political background will help her convince the city council to join her efforts to rein in the city’s cannabis-dispensing coffeeshops and its famous sex industry. Halsema is also currently wrestling with a housing affordability crisis: The cost of living in Amsterdam has long been a concern for economists and local officials, who point to the chronically low level of housing supply and increasing influence of short-term rental services like Airbnb.
Bloomberg CityLab recently talked to the 56-year-old mayor about the risks of overtourism, the future of the city’s famed red light district, and why she wants Amsterdam to no longer attract people who want to take a “moral vacation.” Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
Could you tell us about your vision for the city?
I think Amsterdam has always been and is going to be an international city. We depend on international trade. Many international companies are based here in Amsterdam. There is no change in that perspective. We love tourists in our city. They are an important part of our local economy also. Especially when tourists come for the beauty of our city, for our museums or for our night culture. But we do have a problem with some of the tourists. It’s not with tourism but with the behavior of minority of the tourists.
The number of tourists is another issue. Florence welcomes 14 million tourists per year, and they say that’s a little bit too much. Barcelona welcomes 20 million tourists per year, and they say that’s a little bit too much. Amsterdam welcomes 22 million tourists per year, and that’s a little bit too much.
So what do you mean by too much, and by how much does it need to go down?
I can’t give a number. It depends on behavior or the way tourists are spread across the city.
We have to tackle two problems. The first problem is what I’d call the London problem: Our city is becoming too expensive. That is also part of being an international city and having many expats living here. But it has consequences for the middle classes. It’s very difficult to find a house in Amsterdam except for the highest incomes, so our middle class- teachers, police officers, people working in health care- are leaving the city. We’re very alert about it. For a city to survive in the long run you need social stability and people from middle or lower classes to also feel at home.
Our second problem is the Venice problem: The people who live here become estranged especially in the city center, because it’s no longer part of their city. We have to find a new balance, in being a home for people from Amsterdam and at the same time welcoming international visitors and tourists.
Is there a certain kind of tourism that you don’t welcome in Amsterdam?
It’s not a form of tourism we welcome or don’t welcome- it’s a form of behavior. What we do not welcome is people who come here on a vacation from morals. They express a form of behavior they would not express at home. People coming here to lose their morals is a problem for us.
This is also the fault of the Dutch and Amsterdam governments of the past. We have been so enthusiastic about welcoming economic and touristic activity, especially after the 2008-2009 financial crisis. But Amsterdam has a long tradition in being very liberal and progressive. We have been a safe haven for many minorities and free thinkers. In Amsterdam, there’s a state of mind of tolerance. We always argue that cannabis should be legalized and prostitution shouldn’t be criminalized. That is also a part of Amsterdam’s history, a history that we’re very proud of.
But drug culture and prostitution have been internationally commercialized. That is not the way it was intended. We should correct the way we advertised the city in the last 15 years. For instance, we have sex entrepreneurs and their business model is based on attracting as many people as they can from other European cities. That’s a business model I think is no longer acceptable.
So Amsterdam should no longer be considered a place to go to get high? Is that something you want to change?
Yes, I think so. It’s a place where you should go if you’re looking for beautiful museums, or to see the underground culture, or if you want to attend our Pride. We don’t want our traditional liberalism to be replaced by conservatism. That’s not what we’re aiming for.
In recent years you’ve proposed enacting some major changes in the city’s red light district, including curtaining off windows along the streets and even moving prostitution out of the neighborhood entirely. Can you talk about the current state of the red light district?
In the past, the red light district was a safe working space for sex workers. There were Amsterdammers and international visitors who came for the women, but now it attracts a lot of people who just stand in front of the windows and laugh at sex workers. I consider that a violation of their human rights. We do not want to criminalize prostitution. To me, it’s very important women and trans workers can do their work in safe conditions and in accordance to human rights.
Another problem in the red light district is that it creates too much noise and causes too many problems for the people who live there. And the third problem is that it mingles with organized crime.
That’s why you’ve proposed to to establish an “erotic center”- relocating the prostitution to a purpose-built site outside of the historic city center.
The discussion on prostitution and the red light district has been frozen for years; nobody wanted to discuss it because it has a moral theme. Are you in favor of legalization of prostitution or against? I have tried to make it a more pragmatic discussion. Here, there is supply and demand. As long as, especially men, go to sex workers, there will be sex workers. The best thing we can do is give them the best working conditions to do their work.
I gave the city council four scenarios for the future of prostitution in Amsterdam, and they chose the erotic center. There are parties that are interested. They want to make a festive erotic center. I always like to make the comparison with the Moulin Rouge, where sexuality is a nice and good part of daily life. The erotic center should have some standing, be chic. We are in the stage of looking for a place in the city where it can start. That is not easy, as you can imagine. A lot of people in Amsterdam are in favor of an erotic center- but not in their backyard.
Relatedly, could you tell us about your plans on coffeeshops? [While cannabis is not legal in the Netherlands, possession up to five grams is decriminalized and licensed “coffeeshops” are allowed to sell small amounts of the drug to those over age 18.]
I think cannabis should be legalized. I think the war on drugs is only good news for organized crime. It enriches organized crime. For a long time, the Netherlands has been very effective in separating the soft and hard drug markets. But what we see, especially under the influence of international visitors, is that our cannabis market has become huge. The number of coffeeshops have dropped, but demand for cannabis has risen. A lot of money is going through this market, which makes it very vulnerable to organized crime.
I have asked the city council temporarily to ban tourists from coffeeshops. It’s going to be discussed in September. I think the city council won’t accept my proposal because of the international reputation of the city and because they’re very worried all those tourists will start buying it on the streets. But I say we already have 2,000 [drug] dealers in the historic city center, and they are there mainly because of the tourists. Tourist buy their cannabis in the coffeeshops, but they buy their dope, cocaine or whatever on the streets. The market is already booming for dealers. It is one of the reason that tourists who are on a moral vacation come to Amsterdam, and also many of them say, “We will not come anymore if we cannot visit coffeeshops.”
So is your proposal to ban tourists from buying weed at coffeeshops more about tourism or crime?
Both. The mingling with organized crime is an effect of the high demand of cannabis.
Amsterdam has recently received a lot of foreign residents, especially after Brexit, and some locals complain housing prices are rising because of this influx of expats. You said you receive too many tourists. Is there a threshold for the amount expats you want to host as well?
We are very much in favor of international mobility and freedom of mobility. It’s very difficult for me to say that’s enough. We have a huge building assignment ahead of us- we are going to build complete new neighborhoods with 70,000 houses. We also have to rethink mobility in the region, so it becomes easier for the middle and the lower class to live in Amsterdam. We are already a dense city, but we see still possibilities to become more dense. We are also looking to possibilities to build on water. We hope we also find solutions there.
What are you doing to make houses more affordable for middle- and lower-income residents?
We try to influence the housing market as much as we can, and there we differ from London or New York or other huge cities. Building companies and companies that rent have to conform to a 40-40-20 rule, which means 40% social housing 40% middle-class housing and 20% upper class. That gives us some possibility to maneuver the housing market.
Amsterdam has also been a leader in regulating Airbnb. Do you think you need more measures to regulate the company and similar short-term rental services?
Yes, I think we still need more measures. We have been able to regulate Airbnb, especially in the historic city center, but what we do see that especially in our most vulnerable neighborhoods we have houses where nobody lives anymore because they rent it out. People who do live in those neighborhoods feel estranged. That is really not good.
Another big concern is climate change. Are you worried about the future of Amsterdam in 50 to 100 years? Some scientists say the city could look a lot different by then.
Amsterdam has proven itself to be a very resilient city for hundreds of years. It has a creative population; we always find solutions. Amsterdam is built on wooden sticks. Who could imagine? And it’s still there! So no, I’m not worried. I do think we have challenges- but we’ll find solutions.
Is it easier to push your agenda with your political background? Is it easier to convince the city council on some of your proposals?
We have a liberal city council, and yes, it’s in a conservative country. Amsterdam has always been a strange place. I think they do understand what my motives are. I don’t want to make Amsterdam conservative. The opposite: I am very proud of the tolerant tradition in Amsterdam. For instance, the commercialization of the historic city center has driven away the nightclubs, and that’s a pity. That should be a place where all the progressive and liberal movements of the city come together. It has been such a place in the past. Traditionally, it is a place where mainstream and underground Amsterdams find each other. I want to bring unconventional Amsterdam back.