The Dutch War on Tourists

Outnumbered by drunk and disorderly visitors, the Netherlands fights back.

Illustration of tourist mayhem
Rami Niemi

The Dutch have suffered some brutal occupations, from the Roman empire and Viking raids to Spanish and Nazi rule. But now they face an even larger army of invaders: tourists.

In the era of cheap flights and Airbnb, their numbers are staggering. Some 19 million tourists visited the Netherlands last year, more people than live there. For a country half the size of South Carolina, with one of the world’s highest population densities, that’s a lot. And according to the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions, the number of annual visitors is projected to increase by 50 percent over the next decade, to 29 million. Urban planners and city officials have a word for what the Netherlands and quite a few other European countries are experiencing: overtourism. With such an influx of humanity comes a decline in quality of life. Residents’ complaints range from inconvenience (crowds spilling from sidewalks to streets) to vandalism to alcohol-induced defilement (vomiting in flower boxes, urinating in mailboxes).

Amsterdam, with its museums, guided canal tours, and picturesque architecture, sees much of this collateral damage. To combat it, the city recently passed various pieces of legislation, including a moratorium on new hotel construction in much of the city; new fines (140 euros for public urination or drunk and disorderly conduct); new restrictions on Airbnb rentals (30 nights a year per unit); and a combination of bans and restrictions on new tourist-centric businesses, such as bike-rental outfits and donut shops, in the historic city center. Guided tours of the city’s Red Light District will be banned in January 2020, and thanks to new government regulations, many of its cannabis “coffee shops”—the first of which dates back to 1967—have closed. There’s even talk of charging day-trippers to set foot in the city, a bold policy recently enacted in Venice. Perhaps most telling, earlier this year the Dutch tourism board officially shifted its mission from “destination promotion” to “destination management.”

Overtourism may have pierced a part of the Dutch psyche that once seemed inviolable: its gedoogcultuur, or culture of permissiveness. Ko Koens, who studies sustainable tourism at Breda University of Applied Sciences, finds the anti-tourist sentiment expressed by his fellow citizens both curious and troubling: “There’s a certain irony that many left-wing people who condemn xenophobia nonetheless talk about ‘the Chinese’ and ‘the English’—if they’re tourists, that’s seen as okay,” Koens says.

Tony Perrottet, the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists, says anti-tourist sentiment can be traced at least as far back as the first and second centuries a.d., when wealthy Romans visited Greece (where they complained about the food), Naples (where they complained about the guides), and Egypt (where they defaced the pyramids and the Sphinx with graffiti). “The structure of tourism historically is that you have resentful locals, and rich, obnoxious, clueless intruders: the Greeks and the Romans, the Brits and the Americans, the Dutch and Germans,” says Perrottet, who lives in Manhattan. “But I sympathize with the Dutch. God, there’s nothing more annoying than getting stuck on Fifth Avenue between a bunch of tourists.”

This article appears in the September 2019 print edition with the headline “The War on Tourists.”