Overtourism and Why Amsterdam May Ban Tourists from Cannabis Cafes

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Amsterdam’s cannabis culture has long been the stuff of legends for potheads around the world, especially for those coming from more restrictive environments. However, these fantasies of a city friendly to cannabis tourists may soon be put to bed. The jury is out: Amsterdam has had it up to here with rowdy tourists and many locals are blaming cannabis cafes for enabling them. Soon, Amsterdam may ban tourists from cannabis cafes altogether as a way to weed out unsavoury types.

Why does Amsterdam want to ban tourists from cannabis cafes?

According to Mayor Femke Halsema, bad behaviour exhibited by tourists is the main reason for the ban.

We would like [tourists] to come for [Amsterdam’s] richness, its beauty and its cultural institution. The problem is: there are just too many of them. The drug tourists are the reason for an increase in demand for marijuana.

Mayor Femke Halsema

Halsema first proposed the ban in early 2020 and now, the city wants to pivot its tourism strategy during this crucial recovery period to focus on more “wholesome” tourists.

There have already been a variety of proposed reforms to tackle the purported issue of “overtourism” in the city, specifically from certain types of tourists. For instance, Airbnbs and other short-term holiday rentals were banned in the historic centre, a ruling which has since been overturned by the courts. There are also proposals to move Amsterdam’s red-light district out of the city and into the outskirts.

We need to change the international image of Amsterdam as the drugs capital of the world. If we do that, I believe we will draw a different crowd and make sure the city becomes more liveable.

Councillor Don Cedar

Residents of the city have cited different accounts of bad behaviour from tourists, specifically singling out party animal antics that include vomiting into windows and dressing up in offensive costumes while stumbling through and urinating in the streets.

What Happens in Amsterdam Stays in Amsterdam

Photo by: Gio Mikava

It’s not difficult to sympathize with these residents. Large parts of Amsterdam are residential, and a good number of the city’s 166 coffee shops are located in neighbourhoods. However, banning tourists from cannabis cafes may only end up hurting these businesses without actually tackling the larger issue of overtourism and rowdy behaviour.

Owner of Greenhouse Cafe Joachim Helms is one of the many people involved in running cannabis cafes in Amsterdam who see this move as detrimental. He also doesn’t think that his customers are the ones making a ruckus in the city.

Where we are there are only eight coffee shops left and in the same zip-code there are 500 places that serve alcohol.

Joachim Helms

Amsterdam For High Times Cannabis Cup

Overtoursim has long been an issue in Amsterdam, with the city’s tourism authority having launched numerous awareness campaigns to remind tourists to behave appropriately following countless complaints from residents of noise, disruption and disturbance.

It is unlikely that cannabis cafes are the sole spawning point of these annoying tourists. Indeed, it does seem like moralistic tendencies have biased reforms towards tackling the usual scapegoats: drugs and sex. This bandaid solution ignores the fact that tourism, by its very nature, has always been structured around the marketing of unique local experiences to foreigners. Amsterdam’s reputation as a party city and liberal place is not going to go away. In fact, the proposed ban might just cause tourists to opt for street dealers and other black-market options.

It’s a cycle that is difficult to break. A tourist destination can become a haven for partygoers for any reason, including its natural beauty, affordability or unique laws (the Netherlands is one of the few places in Europe where one can purchase cannabis without hassle). These destinations inadvertently adopt an air of permissiveness to continue attracting tourists, which then perpetuates the notion that one can literally take a vacation from the consequences of their actions. Local residents, many of whom operate tourist-centric businesses and no doubt want to keep attracting tourists, then have to deal with the fallout of puked-up streets and their neighbourhoods becoming increasingly unlivable.

This “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” attitude plagues not only the Netherlands, but almost every tourist destination in the world that is known for its nightlife and party culture: see Bali, Bangkok and Cancun. It is noteworthy that none of these locations have any (legal) cannabis cafes and that countries like Indonesia and Thailand are actually known to have some of the most restrictive laws in the world when it comes to cannabis, all too often arresting tourists for even minor possession.

It’s understandable to want to blame something specific for the overtourism in Amsterdam, whether it be drugs, alcohol, cultural differences or something else. The problem is that this blame game veers into prohibitionist territory, which will have negative effects on local businesses while doing nothing to curb crime.

City authorities need to ask themselves whether their image reforms will only end up giving Amsterdam a restrictive and punitive image that does not reflect the actual culture of the city. Fundamental questions about the country’s approach to tourism and its own culture also need to be asked. Are cannabis cafes not part of Amsterdam’s culture? Are they not something locals are proud of? Do local businesses not benefit from cannabis tourism? Will these reforms just end up hurting locals?

When in Rome…

Photo by: Ehud Neuhaus

Perhaps the most equitable solution is for tourists to police their own behaviour. Countries will have laws and norms ranging from draconian to utopian on the restrictive/permissive spectrum, and the onus is on tourists to adapt.

The key to navigating this is to think of yourself as a guest in someone else’s home. Apply the Golden Rule when travelling just as you would with anything else in life. You wouldn’t treat your neighbour’s backyard as your landfill.

Authorities in Amsterdam are debating different ways to control the overtourism problem, including increasing police presence in the main areas of the city. Increased police presence may be more trouble than it’s worth, especially for locals who have to deal with that reality every day.

The truth is that Amsterdam is unlikely to prevent tourists from spending money in their cannabis cafes, especially during difficult times like these. However, with city officials continually reviving the debate on the cannabis cafe ban, it is safe to assume they are doing their darndest to try and get the message across: behave, or else.

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