Amsterdam to tourists: Get off the beaten path

With a visitor surge crowding space in central Amsterdam, the city is marketing its neighborhoods as an alternative for tourists. (Vladimir Yaitskiy/flickr/cc)

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands — The shimmering canals, world-class museums and nightlife here have always been a hit with visitors, but lately the tourist crush in central Amsterdam has grown almost intolerable.

Locals call the sound of suitcase wheels clanking on cobblestones “trolley terror.” More annoying are the teams of drunks pedaling around on “beer bikes,” sort of a pub on wheels. Around Christmas, police had to close off one of the city’s main shopping streets for 20 minutes when the pedestrianized street became so crowded that shoppers could not exit the stores.

The people of Amsterdam are generally a welcoming lot. But especially for those who live or work in the compact city center, friendliness is being tested by the sometimes rowdy crowds of visitors and the pizza boxes and beer bottles they leave behind in the streets. Amsterdam hotels booked 12.5 million overnight stays in 2014, representing a substantial growth rate of more than 10 percent in just one year. That’s in a city whose population of about 800,000 full-time residents has increased by 80,000 over the past decade.

Now, city leaders are working on strategies for dispersing the growing number of visitors across more parts of the city. Their goal is to relieve pressure on the main tourist areas while spreading tourist spending — and the related jobs — into neighborhoods that could use a jolt.

In a recent speech, Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan noted the challenge — but also the opportunity. “The overcrowding is really a problem,” he said, “but it is a luxury problem. Many shrinking municipalities in the Netherlands, no, all municipalities in the Netherlands, would love to have our problem.”  

New hotel concepts

One of Amsterdam’s strategies is to re-think the location and role of hotels. Developers are responding to the tourist boom by building thousands of hotel rooms. New municipal guidelines encourage proposed hotels to locate outside the city center, preferably in existing buildings that can be transformed. The guidelines say hotels should offer new and exciting concepts that add something to the neighborhood — and attract locals as well as foreign visitors. The goal is to create a more diverse product for a wider range of people, and to try and spread out the tourists across the entire city and region.

Some interesting projects have been developed since the policy took effect. One transformed an old tram depot into a cultural hotspot with a cinema, food court and galleries in addition to rooms for guests. An old Shell Oil office tower is now being turned into a hotel that also features a nightclub and recording studios.

Volkshotel manager José Dol: ”For now we’re good, because the hotel business is thriving …. But when it goes down, hotels like ours are the first that suffer from competition like Airbnb.” (Letty Reimerink)

A number of projects have popped up on the East side of town, a residential area 10 minutes by bike to the city center. Here, new hotels can be found in former schools, hospitals and office buildings.

The newest hotspot is the Volkshotel (People’s Hotel), located in the former offices of the national newspaper Volkskrant. Since opening its doors last June, the hotel has developed into a meeting place for the neighborhood. With a rooftop restaurant, a night bar, meeting rooms and studios for artists, this place has a 24-hour buzz. It mostly attracts a younger, creative clientele that likes this unique atmosphere.

“We want people to mingle,” says the hotel manager, José Dol. “People from the neighborhood take their laptop and work in the lounge or they meet for a coffee. We also organize or host events for the neighborhood, like the roller-skate disco for kids that is coming up soon.”

Another nearby hotel, Casa 400, also wants to play an active part in the neighborhood. Hans Vugts, the hotel manager, explains: “We organize a neighborhood barbecue once a year. More on a practical level, we offer neighbors a friendship card, with which they can get a 10 percent discount on all our services. So many people come here to work, eat or have a coffee. They can even leave their clothes here for the dry cleaners, and pick it up in the evening.”

Vugts initiated a regular meeting among area hotel managers and municipal representatives. They’ve joined forces in putting Amsterdam East on tourist maps, with bicycle and walking routes showing how to get there. In hopes of persuading guests to avoid the center’s most clogged destinations, the Volkshotel even uses the slogan: “Why go to Dam Square when you have Amsterdam East at your feet?”

An old Shell Oil office tower in Amsterdam is now being turned into a hotel that also features a nightclub and recording studios. (Letty Reimerink)

According to Dol, this really appeals to the young, creative crowd that her hotel caters to. “The Scandinavians especially like to explore what’s hip and new and want to go off the beaten track,” she says.

Vugts says he encounters more difficulty convincing his guests to linger in the neighborhood. But even if they do go into the center, his visitors are doing more shopping and eating in Amsterdam East than they would otherwise. “Most people are visiting Amsterdam for the first time,” he says. “They just leave their bags and hop on the metro or train to visit the Rijksmuseum and the canals.”

Selling the region

Marketing plays a big part in Amsterdam’s strategies. Since 2009, Amsterdam Marketing, the agency responsible for city promotion, has been trying to entice Amsterdam visitors to also visit sights in the surrounding region. The campaign is called “Visit Amsterdam, See Holland.” In January, it won a coveted award from the UN agency that promotes sustainable tourism.  

The campaign involved a lot of advertising to interest tourists in distant harbor towns, beaches and tulip gardens. It also required a major amount of regional cooperation among 27 municipalities, private entrepreneurs and transport companies.

One product of this cooperation is the Amsterdam City Card which combines local transport fares and admission to museums in the city and surrounding region. For €13.50, visitors can also combine local transport with regional buses, to make it easier to reach the sights outside the city. Since the campaign began, the number of tourists that also visit a place outside Amsterdam has increased by 30 percent; their spending outside Amsterdam has grown by €300 million.

Casa 400 hotel manager Hans Vugts: People from the neighborhood get discounts on hotel services. (Letty Reimerink)

Amsterdam Marketing works the travel media by sending foreign journalists out into the neighborhoods to discover a new side of the city. Hans Vugts is willing to let them stay for free at Casa 400, under one condition: They have to go cycling with him through the neighborhood. “I show them the local market, the impressive new and old architecture and I take them for a coffee in the only remaining 17th-century estate,” he says. “They are amazed at what they experience. So suddenly a piece about Amsterdam East pops up in a Canadian newspaper. Which is great, but sadly, not enough.”

Inside the city limits, neighborhood-level districts used to have some responsibility for tourism and promotion. But that authority was given entirely to Amsterdam Marketing in 2013. The agency uses three pillars for promoting Amsterdam: creativity, innovation and merchant spirit. Almost every neighborhood has something that fits this framework and is worth promoting. But the question always is: Can it compete in visitors’ minds with the Anne Frank House, Rembrandt and Van Gogh?

A glut of rooms?

Some argue that the municipality could be even bolder about pushing tourism into the neighborhoods. José Dol says the city missed a big opportunity a few years ago when an extension of the Stedelijk modern art museum was built next to the Van Gogh Museum. “They should have built it outside the city center,” Dol says. “That would really have made an impact to alleviate the city center and give a boost to one of the neighborhoods.”

For now, the new neighborhood hotels are thriving. Occupancy rates are at a healthy 75 to 80 percent. In Amsterdam East alone, there are plans for several more hotels, including some that belong to big chains and some that don’t. An additional 2,000 hotel rooms will open this year in the city center — despite the city’s focus on locating hotels in the neighborhoods and despite the successful protests of inhabitants against some of them.

The question is: How many hotel rooms can Amsterdam absorb? With over 26,000 of them, Amsterdam already has one of Europe’s highest ratios of hotels per inhabitants. The so-called “sharing economy” is also a factor. Unlike Barcelona or Berlin, Amsterdam has adopted a welcoming stance toward Airbnb. That puts another 10,000 short-term rental rooms into the city’s mix of tourist lodging options.

Hoteliers are sure a downturn will come eventually. There could be a terrorist attack, or a new economic crisis, or a new hip city to visit that overtakes Amsterdam. It is difficult to predict. Joep Theunissen, manager of the Stay Okay youth hostel in Amsterdam East, thinks that the smaller hotels will suffer first when occupancy rates drop. “These hotels need to have an occupancy rate of 75 percent to survive,” Theunissen says. “The bigger chain hotels are more flexible and can drop their prices without perishing.”

To the new neighborhood hotels, Airbnb also represents serious competition for the kind of tourist who is willing to venture off the beaten path.  “For now we’re good, because the hotel business is thriving and I expect it to stay this way for at least five more years,” Dol says. “But when it goes down, hotels like ours are the first that suffer from competition like Airbnb.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of José Dol. It has been corrected.

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Letty is a freelance journalist who writes stories about cities and the people inhabiting them.  Full bio

LEARNING FROM AMSTERDAM

  • New city guidelines aim to locate new hotels in neighborhoods, rather than the crowded city center.
  • The guidelines also encourage hotels to create amenities that appeal to locals as well as tourists.
  • A major marketing effort entices tourists to see towns and sights outside of Amsterdam. 

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