With tourists gone, Amsterdam locals reclaim their city

Amsterdam CNN  — 

A couple of weeks after the first coronavirus case arrived in the Netherlands, we were told to stay inside. Bars and schools closed down and my hometown of Amsterdam came to a halt.

After the first feelings of confusion and uncertainty, I slowly got used to the idea. There was a calmness in the streets I hadn’t experienced in years.

In the past decade, Amsterdam has become a hasty and chaotic place, its occupants increasingly short-tempered. The city’s population of 863,000 was annually swollen by nine million tourists.

The shops in the city center were given over to cater to them, selling waffles, souvenirs and cannabis seeds. Stores catering to residents closed down because of extreme hikes in rent and the lack of customers.

More and more, locals have started to avoid the most beautiful part of their city, as its houses were rented out to tourists and expats.

The center was dying – so much so that the government stopped promoting the whole of Amsterdam as a tourist destination.

I live on the west side of Amsterdam, a neighborhood with fewer tourists and mainly local inhabitants.

Because we have an “intelligent” lockdown, we have been “allowed” to go outside. In the beginning, few people did. Buying groceries or a coffee to go. Or just going for a walk in the park. It became significantly quieter.

But it was nothing compared with what I experienced in the center.

After a few days in lockdown, I jumped on my bicycle and rode to the heart of the city, just for fun – something I haven’t done for years.

I biked across the deserted Dam square and through Damstraat, a road normally packed with tourists wandering around and paying little attention to traffic.

Deep emotion

Dam Square on May 4, prior to National Remembrance Day ceremony that would normally gather crowds in the center of Amsterdam.

I biked through the red-light district, down its small alleyways and across its narrow bridges.

The emptiness revealed the real beauty of this area. And I didn’t have to ring my bell once!

Eventually, I headed home again, via the Zeedijk, a street normally so busy it would be impossible to cycle down.

I had tears in my eyes. A kind of deep emotion I hadn’t felt for a long time: the love for my city. The beauty of it touched me, as it had in my youth – the 1980s and ’90s – when the city was still mine.

And I wasn’t alone.

Mathys van Abbe, who lives on a boat on the Oudeschans, a wide canal close to the red-light district, feels the same way.

“Before corona, the Nieuwmarkt area and red-light district were flooded with tourists, especially in the last couple of years,” he tells me. “There was litter everywhere and it was stressful, if not impossible, to bike in certain streets.

“Now, the red-light district is a gift to us. There is so much beauty!

“I have more contact with my neighbors, the canals are clearer than ever and the city’s nature is thriving. The constant noise is gone and there is calmness. Amsterdam has a circadian rhythm again. It feels like a little retreat.”

‘Cleaner, quieter, neater’

Amsterdam's deserted red-light district, pictured in April.

Van Abbe lives in a busy area, but in a relatively quiet location.

Others living in the middle of the tourist hotspots have had to cope with enormous amounts of visitors every day.

Eva de Vos’s home sits behind the Royal Palace on Dam square.

Before lockdown, she says she could almost literally walk on heads if she left her apartment.

“Now I can park my bike in front of my house, there are fewer accidents with trams and I don’t have to clean the mess on the sidewalk in front of my door every day,” she says.

“We had to cope with 30,000 pedestrians on a daily basis passing our home. There was litter, noise, shouting people at night. The neighborhood is cleaner, quieter, neater now.”

There is a downside to the absence of tourists. Sales have decreased and stores are going bankrupt.

It has become clearer than ever that life in the city center was all about the visitors.

“Amsterdam is no longer Amsterdam,” De Vos says. “Many shops have closed their doors, I miss the liveliness on the streets. Of course, I like to see tourists coming back to us when this is all over, but only half of what was normal for the past years, please.

“I couldn’t walk for two meters without people asking me the way to their hotel, the red-light district or, of course, the Anne Frank House.”

‘More like a community’

This photo from April 2017 shows a typical crowded city center street in Amsterdam.

The Anne Frank House welcomed 1.3 million visitors in 2019 – 108,000 per month – but it too has closed its doors and is now experiencing the consequences.

“Ninety-two percent of our visitors were tourists,” says head of communication, Maatje Mostart. “Since we are an independent and unsubsidized museum, you can imagine how important these visitors are for us.

“Currently, we have no revenue. Because of financial reserves, we will manage this year, but it shouldn’t take much longer. In the meantime, we are extra active online and on the 1st of June we will reopen with a corona protocol.”

Sharon O’Dea lives on the picturesque Bloemgracht canal, just across from the Anne Frank House.

She says the city has lost some of its energy due to the absence of visitors, but this is not without benefits.

“It’s been a case of be careful what you wish for,” she says. “While many find the hordes of tourists annoying – especially the big stag party groups – parts of the city are deserted without them.”

O’Dea says she enjoys the tranquility.

“It feels much more like a community now,” she adds. “People in the shops recognize me when I come in. Local businesses have quickly set up delivery services and takeaway options, and we’ve begun using those regularly to help them keep going in these difficult times.”

Another shift has been the return to Dutch as the city’s lingua franca as default English speakers vanish from its cafés and shops.

For O’Dea, originally from the UK, it’s one of the things that stands out.

“One thing I’ve definitely noticed is hearing Dutch spoken much more in the streets and shops,” she says. “Because there are normally so many tourists, people just defaulted to English, but I’ve noticed people will speak Dutch first and when they hear me, they switch to English.”

Unwritten rules

The city's central streets and canals have been very quiet in recent weeks.

Museums like the Anne Frank House are not the only venues to close their doors.

Nik Poldervaart, co-owner of Café de Kroegtijger, located on the touristy Zeedijk street, has been forced to stop serving beer to his customers.

“Luckily we have a close circle of regulars,” he says. “Still, 20 to 30% of our guests were tourists. “When we open again on June 1, we won’t miss them at first since we can only welcome about 15 to 20 guests because of the corona protocol which says people have to make a reservation and keep a distance of 1.5 meters from each other.

“I think we will manage for about two months, but then the newness of the whole situation will be gone. People will get used to the idea the bars and restaurants are open again and maybe make fewer reservations.”

Before cornoavirus, Café de Kroegtijger welcomed a good mix of locals and tourists. Poldervaart is hoping Amsterdammers will visit the city center more often when all restrictions are lifted and tourism returns.

“One of the reasons I never went to this area before I ran my own café is because I want to be able to speak and order in Dutch and I want to be around fellow Amsterdammers,” he says. “We have to attract locals more and avoid visitors who think everything’s allowed here.

“And inform tourists about our unwritten rules, like you don’t smoke a joint near children, you do not visit the red-light district as a family – what are you doing there with a toddler? – and you watch your step so you don’t end up in one of the canals.”

Enjoying the calmness

"I actually enjoy living here again," says Jacqueline Tas.

Another particular touristy place is the Amsterdam Flower Market, near to where Jacqueline Tas has lived for 20 years.

“When I came to live here there was a cheese shop around the corner, and a butcher, a greengrocer, a fish seller, a kiosk where I could buy my newspaper,” she says. “All of those stores are gone now. Also, you hardly see any Amsterdammers from outside the center around here anymore.

“This part of the city became too busy with visitors and I know I shouldn’t say this – because I know the city financially needs tourists – but I am intensely enjoying the calmness and I actually enjoy living here again. We became the quiet part of town.’”

A peculiarity of the lockdown and the absence of tourists has been the upside-down world it’s created in Amsterdam. While the city center has been almost deserted, the outer areas have remained lively.

And one thing has become clear. The people of Amsterdam are craving more of this peace and quiet. While it might be a little too quiet right now, they’ve had a taste of what life could be like and yearn for a better balance in the ratio of tourists and locals.

It’s something that the city was attempting to address even before the crisis.

Geerte Udo is CEO of amsterdam&partners, a nonprofit organization that was responsible for marketing the city until 2017. Since then it’s focused on environmental management and guiding visitors to lesser known places.

“Currently, we are working on a sustainable recovery of the visitor economy if measures are liberalized,” Udo says.

Seducing Amsterdammers

Lockdown measures are starting to ease in Amsterdam, with boats allowed back on canals at weekends.

The organization is looking at how to focus on visitors, such as business travelers, who “add value” to central Amsterdam and its residents, without causing inconvenience, she says. Locals will also be targeted.

“The campaign is about the rediscovery of the cultural offer, the old center of the city and different other neighborhoods, the local entrepreneurs, the public space, et cetera,” Udo adds. “In this way, the campaign contributes to the renewed bond between residents and their city, environment and each other. It builds on our aim to seduce Amsterdammers to rediscover their city.”

While visitors are welcome, she says the organization wants to create a sustainable economy – in terms of society, environment and business – around them.

“We must take measures to minimize the negative effects of a potentially growing influx of visitors,” Udo says. “Good examples are banning Airbnb in certain parts of the city and tackling monoculture.”

We these plans in mind, the pandemic could be seen as a valuable reset for the city, helping Amsterdam, its residents and organizations like amsterdam&partners go back to the start and rebuild.

But for now, Amsterdammers are enjoying a very welcome break for as long as it lasts.