Amsterdam is considering banning tourists from its infamous cannabis-vending coffee shops as the city explores new ways to balance quality of life for locals with the demands of visitors.
The move follows a recent survey of young tourists commissioned by Mayor Femke Halsema that revealed over half said they chose to visit the Dutch capital because they wanted to experience a cannabis cafe.
The survey looked at the most popular reasons for visiting Amsterdam, and sought to investigate “what would happen to the willingness of tourists to visit Amsterdam if either the availability or accessibility of one or more of these factors should reduce or disappear.”
Some 57% of respondents said coffee shops are an important reason for why they came to Amsterdam.
Meanwhile, 34% indicated they’d come to Amsterdam less often if they weren’t able to visit coffee shops, and 11% said they wouldn’t come at all.
In a letter to councilors before the survey took place, in July 2019, Halsema suggested that the city’s coffee shops can put “the quality of life in the city center under pressure.”
The survey, which took place in August 2019, questioned 1,100 international visitors between the ages of 18 and 35 who were visiting Amsterdam’s Red Light District, an area of the city that’s become the focus of Amsterdam’s most recent tourism regulations.
Starting April 1, 2020, new measures will be in place to regulate group tours of the area, preventing tour groups from passing the red light windows, touring past 10 p.m. and lingering in “places that are sensitive to pressure” – such as narrow bridges, or new entryways.
Any guide found breaking the rules could face fines of €190 ($205).
The mayor’s survey questioned visitors about whether they’d pay an entry fee to visit the Wallen/Singel areas – the medieval city center that constitutes the Red Light District. Of these, 32% said they would stop coming and 44% said they would visit less often.
But the mayor’s survey suggests the city’s coffee shops have a stronger appeal for international tourists than the Red Light District.
Only 1% of those surveyed mentioned window prostitution as the main reason for their visit.
Meanwhile, 72% said they’d visited a coffee shop during their stint in Amsterdam.
Journalist Isabelle Gerretsen grew up in Amsterdam, and she’s seen first hand the impact of mass tourism in the city.
“It is understandable that Amsterdam residents want to preserve their beautiful historic center, and also go about their daily lives without constantly being confronted by rowdy tourists,” she tells CNN Travel.
Looking into curbing tourist cannabis use is “the latest in a string of measures aimed at preserving the city’s status as a center of culture, rather than a theme park for ‘weed tourists’,” says Gerretsen.
“But of all the measures, it is the riskiest,” she says. “Because Amsterdam is known worldwide for its tolerant policy towards soft drugs. It could lead to a decline in tourist numbers.”
Different municipalities in the Netherlands have different coffee shop rules, and discussions on barring everyone except residents are not new.
This conversation became heated back in 2011 and 2012, with Amsterdam fighting back against the proposed introduction of a residents-only rule across the Netherlands’ coffee shops.
Today, this rule exists in Maastricht, in the south of the country.
To add to the slightly confusing set up, buying cannabis from a coffee shop is legal in the Netherlands, but producing cannabis remains illegal.
The new Amsterdam survey points out that barring non-residents from the coffee shops doesn’t necessarily translate to a reduction in visitors, or a reduction in cannabis use.
Of the visitors surveyed, 29% said they would turn to other routes in search of their drug fix – getting a resident to buy cannabis for them, or via street trading, for example.
In a recent letter to city councilors listing the survey results, Halsema said the city government should focus on “reducing the attraction of cannabis to tourists” and making the Amsterdam cannabis market more transparent.
Appeal of the city
Still, Amsterdam’s tourist survey suggests that the most common reason for visiting Amsterdam isn’t the coffee shops, the Red Light District or even the varied museums and cultural attractions – it’s actually the pretty wholesome appeal of walking or cycling around the city.
British tourist Allan Claydon, 24, agrees with this take – and says he doesn’t think curbing coffee shop culture would change Amsterdam’s appeal for visitors.
“I don’t think the banning of cannabis would decimate tourism,” he tells CNN Travel. “The city is also known for its culture and brilliant aesthetic.”