News Cleaning canals and marrying locals? Amsterdam’s ‘untourism’ revolution

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Cleaning canals and marrying locals? Amsterdam’s ‘untourism’ revolution

A new era of responsible tourism is helping ease Amsterdam’s tourist burden and offering visitors the chance to give something back

Dreamy canal vistas, picture-perfect streets, quaint old bikes cruising by… Amsterdam’s charms have been well documented over the years. A little too well documented, in fact, demonstrated by city-swelling numbers of tourists arriving each year.

For many cities, tourism growth would be a positive, but for Amsterdam the numbers (over 17.5 million visitors in 2018 and rising exponentially) are taking their toll. Crowds of tourists block up narrow city centre streets, flock to popular sights en masse and raucously over-indulge in bars and coffee shops (the type that sell something stronger than coffee).

New tourist regulations

Over-tourism has become so much of a problem that last year, the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions (NBTC) published a report outlining its ‘new vision’. Rather than promoting the country, the overwhelming priority is now to manage the flow of tourism.

New regulation measures are announced frequently in Amsterdam, from banning new tourist shops to dramatically increasing on-the-spot fines for tourist-dominated offences, such as urinating in public or drinking alcohol in the street. In 2018 authorities removed the famous ‘I Amsterdam’ sign from outside the Rijksmuseum to deter hordes of selfie-seekers, and at the start of 2020 the city’s ‘tourist tax’ for overnight stays was raised to €3 per night, alongside an existing 7% room rate (Airbnb guests pay 10% of the rental cost per night).

To improve the quality of life for residents, the city officials’ focus is now to attract visitors who ‘contribute to the Netherlands as a future-proof destination.’ In response to this, a growing number of initiatives are now helping tourists contribute to the city while still enjoying meaningful experiences.

Meaningful tourist experiences

The driving force is the Untourist Guide to Amsterdam, a website and book exploring how tourism can become a force for good. Founded by Amsterdam residents Elena Simons and Eelko Hamer, followed by Sabine Linz, the Untourist Guide has become something of a movement, with hundreds of businesses, hotels, museums and tour operators joining. The Guide highlights and books independently organised activities that let tourists ‘funtribute’, which Elena defines as “making a joyful contribution, to the city, its people and the world at large.”

In May, the Untourist Guide will launch Amsterdam’s first Reinvent Tourism Festival, inviting visitors and locals to join forces and develop ideas to boost responsible tourism. “Rather than focusing on the problems, we feel there is potential for tourism to be one of the solutions,” says Elena, “if we can invite visitors to contribute to values like local community and sustainability.”

The Untourist Guide may be the key player, but other projects and companies are also helping build a new age of tourism. Booking.com, for example, launched a program to generate ‘responsible urban tourism solutions’ in 2018, while sustainability-themed walking tours are becoming ever-more popular with savvy tourists.

Feeling inspired for your next Amsterdam visit?

Five experiences that help tourists do their bit

1. Rederij Lampedusa

Canal tours with a difference – the difference being that your vessel is an ex-refugee boat captained by former refugees. Tours focus on the history and influence of immigration to the Netherlands, from Portuguese Jews sailing to Amsterdam thousands of years ago to the city’s modern-day African communities.

“We created what we hope is the most inclusive, sympathetic and colourful shipping company in Amsterdam,” says founder and artist Teun Castelein. “A canal tour operator that finally reflects the multicultural DNA of the city. Tourism has become a million-dollar industry, but at the core lays a beautiful concept: being interested in each other’s culture.”

2. The Upcycle Store

Transform discarded items into something useful, by turning bicycle tyres into belts and earrings, making notebooks from plastic bags or bringing your own debris. Alongside the fun, creative part, the aim is to educate and inform about deeper-rooted issues. For founder Lodewijk Bosman, responsible tourism schemes like these are crucial.

“Tourism is seen as a problem by many citizens, because it doesn’t support social cohesion,” he says. “If you show that diversity makes the city richer and that tourists can be part of that through these initiatives, it helps to change this view. Stopping tourism is no option, so it’s better to let it be part of our culture and help us transform.”

3. Plastic Whale

Go fishing in Amsterdam’s canals – for plastic. Armed with nets, tourists and locals set sail, scooping up plastic from the waters while taking-in the sights. Sadly, there’s a lot to be fished out, but Plastic Whale is making a dent and thinking big.

“We’re a social enterprise with a mission,” says Lenny Houwaart, head of marketing. “We want plastic-free waters. Worldwide. We achieve this by showing others that economic value can be created from waste.” The recovered plastic is used to build (surprisingly stylish) office furniture and more boats to help Plastic Whale continue its quest.

4. Marry an Amsterdammer

Dreamed-up through an Untourist Guide collaboration, this activity made headlines last year by allowing visitors to wed an Amsterdam resident for a day in a fake ceremony, complete with wedding attire, rings and speeches. Afterwards the newlywed is taken on honeymoon by their ‘spouse’, visiting lesser-known sights and helping the city through Untourist activities.

Jona Rens, founder of the Wed & Walk shop-chapel that conducts the weddings, says that tourists love the experience. “The goal is to build bridges between tourists and local people, because for locals, tourists are quite a nuisance,” she says. “But when they spend time together it’s really fun. We also want to offer tourists a chance for contributing instead of consuming.”

5. Trash Hero Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s chapter of the global Trash Hero network organises weekly clean-ups around the city, with locals and tourists chatting and working side by side. Inspired by Trash Hero clean-ups on the Indonesian island of Gili Meno, Dieuwke Reuvers initiated the Amsterdam operation to increase awareness of environmental impact.

“We are all just passing through Amsterdam, some for a weekend or a few months, others for a decade or lifetime,” says Dieuwke. “We are all responsible for this fun, busy, creative, beautiful city. How can you contribute to it, even if you are here just for one weekend?” 

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