Amsterdam’s council has helpfully explained that it only wants rich tourists in future

Luckily rich people never take cocaine. Image: Getty.

Amsterdam has a new resolution for 2017: care less. Between Christmas and the New Year – when everyone was still scrambling to work out which way was up and who shoved Uncle Richard’s homemade mince pies behind the radiator – the city council announced that it was upping the city’s tourist tax. This will reduce the number of cheap hostels in the city centre, while having little impact on the more expensive hotels.

Then, channelling the spirit of bah-humbug and DGAF, the council explained that they were doing this in an attempt to get rid of the budget tourists. And the stag parties. And pretty much anyone whose travel budget doesn’t extend to more than €50 a night. It’s a bold move: attack to defend, accuse yourself of elitism before committed carpers like myself have even logged onto Twitter.

Amsterdam alderman Udo Kock explained to Dutch newspaper Parool that 28 per cent of tourists visiting the city book into budget hotels – and “that has to be reduced”. The city’s plan to reduce the number of budget bookings involves slashing tourist tax breaks and changing the way tourist tax is calculated.

Right now tourists pay 5 per cent of the cost of their room when they check out – a system that the under-paid and much beleaguered hotel concierges just lurve explaining to hungover guests. In the future a split fee might be introduced; that’d mean the guest paid a fixed amount per night, plus a percentage of the hotel bill.

Kock and co claim that scrapping tax deductibles like agency fees while increasing the tourist tax will raise an extra €4m for the city in 2017. This extra money will presumably be spent washing the pleb-ooze off park benches and training a flock of iPhone carrying bluebirds to escort all the “quality” tourists to their “quality” hotels.

It gets better: in 2018, the increased tourist tax will bring in €9m, and encourage tourists to spread out across the city. This is a kind of divide and conquer style, where every borough gets a Minion-themed stag party, rather than letting the city centre hoard them all in some kind of weird, central, easily accessible, tourist district.

Anti-tourist rumblings first made headlines back in 2014, when high profile Amsterdam residents began complaining about the volume of visitors invading the city. Rijksmuseum chief Wim Pijbes claimed that tourists were causing the city to become “full”, “dirty” and “sleazy”, a description that travel companies are probably using verbatim for promotional purposes.

Following Pijbes’ complaints a number of Dutch politicians also expressed concerns over tourist numbers. A campaign was launched to encourage people to visit different parts of the city; a group of residents petitioned the mayor to crack down on disruptive tourists; the city put a stop to new hotel development; and a scheme was launched to calm tourists down via the universally soothing practise of sporadically flashing lights.


This latest attempt to dissuade low-income tourists from polluting visiting Amsterdam is the result of a familiar, yet grotesquely flawed, belief that wealthy tourists spend their holidays quietly, unobtrusively, spending money. Meanwhile the rank and file swim around in the city gutters – regurgitating cigarette butts into letter boxes, dousing everything with bodily fluids, and demanding to know why the local casino doesn’t take Love To Shop vouchers.

Evidence of this thinking can already be seen in ongoing attempts to gentrify the Amsterdam Red Light District. Despite being one of the city’s most commercially viable and popular areas, the Red Light District has remained remarkably accessible to all kinds of businesses. Independent brothels operated next to chain burger bars and eco-friendly sex shops while family-held businesses are commonplace. In 2008, however, the city council announced they would “clean-up” the Red Light District and began replacing the famous brothels and coffee shops with designer boutiques.

Set aside accusations of gentrification, landgrabs, offensive stereotyping and coded language: it doesn’t make sense for a city that makes so much money from the tourism industry to start pulling up the drawbridge in pursuit of a comparatively small pay-off.

As with most outwardly baffling, apparently self-sabotaging, schemes, though some of the blame for Amsterdam city council’s latest announcement can be attributed to Brexit. Yes, Amsterdam is swimming in tourist euros but it’s also attractive to international investors. With financial companies pulling out of post-Brexit London, a plethora of corporate tax breaks, an established international community and a “progressive spirit”, forecasters are already predicting that Amsterdam could become Europe’s next financial centre.

All of this means that 2017 really is looking like a win-win scenario for Amsterdam city council’s aversion to budget tourism. If Amsterdam does become the next go-to place for tax-dodging multinational companies the lost budget tourist euros will have little impact on the city’s income. And if the city is undercut by established tax havens like Luxembourg or Geneva (concerns have been raised over Dutch salary caps) at least the council will have freed up more space for the wealthy tourists to park.

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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.