KTEP - El Paso, Texas

In Amsterdam, Even The Tourists Say There Are Too Many Tourists

Aug 7, 2018
Originally published on August 13, 2018 9:14 am

Bert Nap has had enough. On a recent night, the longtime Amsterdam resident opened his door to confront a gaggle of young, drunken British men, all dressed as Elvis for a bachelor party, making a tremendous ruckus.

Nap asked them: "Why don't you do that in your own hometown?"

This was hardly the first time he'd been disturbed by late-night revelers. Many are tourists who vomit in his potted plants, urinate in his mailbox, and scream-sing outside his door. "My city is seen as one where anything goes," he says.

Standing in front of Nap's open door, one drunken Elvis replied: Amsterdam sells drugs and prostitution — and he and his friends partake. "We buy your streets, we are paying for it," he recalls the Elvis told him. "Just move; go live elsewhere."

Nap, a 59-year-old author of language textbooks, does not want to live anywhere else. He moved here 40 years ago as a student. He and his German-teacher wife, Conchita Lavalette, 55, raised their daughter in a cute house between a chapel and a canal in Amsterdam's Red Light District.

Now, before you roll your eyes and think: The Red Light District? What did you expect, Mr. Nap? Consider that people have lived here for hundreds of years. The couple's daughter went to kindergarten next to the brothels.

"She grew up waving at the prostitutes, our neighbors," Nap says. "This was an actual neighborhood. Now, the tourists have crowded us out. It's a place where tourists mainly see other tourists."

Nutella waffles in a naughty Disneyland

Fewer than 1 million people live in Amsterdam, but city officials expect almost 20 million visitors this year. Most end up squeezing into the historic center of museums and canals and, of course, De Wallen, the oldest Red Light District in Amsterdam.

As a result, the center caters largely to tourists. Think cannabis cafes instead of grocery stores; trinket shops selling condom key rings instead of places where you can actually get keys made. And the smell of a popular stoner treat — waffles slathered with Nutella — replaces the fresh bread in bakeries.

"People come here and think that's our national food," Nap says, grimacing.

The problem is especially acute at night, when young, male tourists, usually drunk or stoned, treat Amsterdam's historic center like a naughty Disneyland.

"People our age come here because the flights are cheap and Amsterdam has this reputation of being a kind of Sin City," says Callum Challinor, an 18-year-old college student visiting from London. "So they push the boundaries."

"But we won't," adds his girlfriend Emillie Whitelock, 19. "We're just here for the weekend, and we want to remember it. Even my parents told us to go to the Red Light District."

She frowns as she watches a group of men taunt prostitutes standing behind windows. The men hold out their smartphones, prompting one of the women to roll her eyes and mouth, NO PHOTOS. The men whoop-whoop loudly and walk away.

"The young and dumb," sighs Bettina Carroll, 26, watching the men. She's from Louisiana and is in Amsterdam on her honeymoon with her husband, Brett, 29. "And they're smoking joints," Brett observes. They "would be in jail back home."

The Carrolls hold hands as they walk along an alley just around the corner from Nap's home. The alley, lined with red-illuminated brothels, is packed with young men, of course, as well as moms pushing strollers, grandmothers, exchange students and a Red Light District walking tour group. It's just past 11 p.m. on a weeknight. The Carrolls are staying in a room in a resident's house in the neighborhood.

"Last night we couldn't sleep because people were yelling," Bettina Carroll says. "They were screaming until 4 o'clock in the morning. I couldn't imagine living here and hearing that constantly."

Repackaging Amsterdam

Amsterdam is the latest European city — following Barcelona, Dubrovnik and Venice — that's cracking down on what's called "overtourism."

Barcelona is blocking construction of new hotels in the historic center, turning away cruise ships and cutting down the number of tourists allowed into Boqueria market. Croatia's stunning walled city, Dubrovnik — where HBO's Game of Thrones is filmed — has been overrun by fans. The mayor wants to drastically reduce the number of visitors allowed into the medieval center. There have been anti-tourism protests in Barcelona and Venice. Venice also has a team of stewards who patrol for bad behavior, which even includes eating sandwiches in historic areas.

Now, it's Amsterdam's turn. The city council is doubling the tax on hotel rooms to 6 percent, prohibiting short-term Airbnb rentals in the center and banning new souvenir shops. It's already banished something called The Beer Bike — a cart with 12 bicycle seats around a bar, so tourists could drink while pedaling along the canals.

And the city is trying to lure tourists away from the center by repackaging sites just outside Amsterdam, such as a strip of sandy coastline known to locals as Zandvoort and to tourists as "Amsterdam Beach."

There's also this video targeted to men between the ages of 18 and 34, reminding them that there are fines for bad behavior, including 140 euros ($164) for urinating in public and 95 euros ($111) for disturbing the peace. The messages appear on booking websites and at airports.

These measures are intended to root out tourists who "cause problems," says Udo Kock, a cheery former International Monetary Fund economist who is Amsterdam's deputy mayor.

"Look, at the end of the day, it's very simple," he says. "If the only reason — the only reason — for you to come to Amsterdam is to get drunk, to get stoned, don't come."

But if your reason is nightlife, don't worry. The city still believes in it and even leans on a "night mayor" to keep a balance between cool and chaotic.

The night mayor

I meet the night mayor at Amsterdam's main train station, just as the sun sets. Amid the backpackers in T-shirts and cargo shorts, 32-year-old Shamiro van der Geld stands out in his deep-purple hat and nose ring.

Plus, unlike most European mayors, he's a hugger.

"Welcome to Amsterdam!" he declares.

The former music producer and television presenter was selected as the city's latest night mayor in February. He describes his job as being the "eyes and ears of Amsterdam at night." More specifically, he's a liaison between the city council and those who live, work and play after the sun sets.

"I actually do most of my work during the day," he says. "I talk with clubs and club owners, programmers, stakeholders who are interested in nightlife or have their company in nightlife."

The night, he says, is full of things to do — dance, paint, perform, read, play games. He's especially trying to engage teenagers by creating a late-night space where they "won't get bored and do dumb things."

"This group of kids, they wander on the streets, and from being bored they start smoking hash or weed and they find a cheap bottle of alcohol," he says.

Van der Geld has also dealt with stoned tourists riding bicycles into traffic or jumping out of buildings.

"Things that happen with people who do not understand how we live," he says.

The idea of "night policy" has a record of success in Amsterdam thanks to van der Geld's predecessor, Mirik Milan, a former concert promoter. Milan formalized the night mayor post about six years ago and held the position until earlier this year.

Over coffee near a canal, he explains that he helped the city grant 24-hour licenses to clubs outside the center, drawing thousands of young fans of electronic music, a staple of Amsterdam's nightlife.

"One-third of the people that come there, they are tourists," he says. "So they're not hanging out in the city center, they're hanging out in the outskirts of the city. The night is an opportunity where we can spread out people."

He travels the world helping cities create their own night mayors. London, for instance, now has a night czar, Amy Lamé, a comedian and cabaret performer. The idea has also spread to cities in the U.S., including New York, Pittsburgh, Fort Lauderdale and, Milan adds with a smile, "good old Iowa City!"

"Loving this place to death"

Back in central Amsterdam, Elard Tissot van Patot appreciates how the night cultivates businesses. He runs Amsterdam Red Light District Tours, which he started as a one-man-band in 2014. He now employs five tour guides.

"Each year, there are more tourists," he says on a recent night, just after he has wrapped up a walking tour. "They may go to the Anne Frank House or the Rijksmuseum or go see the Van Gogh paintings. But at night they all end up here, in this little neighborhood, the Red Light District."

Two tourists from California — lawyer Matt Kaestner and waitress Gail Powers — have just finished Tissot van Patot's tour. Kaestner was last here 29 years ago and is shocked at how crowded it is. "Tourists are loving this place to death," he says. "Or loving the idea of it to death," adds Powers. "The real Amsterdam is not in these crowds. No one here is Dutch, except for the tour guide!"

Just around the corner, in a cute house surrounded by bachelor parties and Nutella waffles, Nap — the language textbook writer terrorized by drunken tourists — says it's not too late to save Amsterdam from overtourism.

He welcomes the new laws. He notices that tourists themselves are grumbling about "too many tourists." And he was thrilled when the new mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, inaugurated last month, invited him to join her on a night walk through central Amsterdam so she could experience the problems firsthand.

"My neighbors, my wife and I feel like we're barely hanging on here, but we're willing to fight for our neighborhood," he says. "I'm not going to leave because some drunk tourist tells me he's paying for the right to destroy my home and neighborhood and my right to some peace. No one can buy us out."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Amsterdam is famous for its nightlife, which appeals to adult visitors. But Amsterdam has now become the latest European city, after Barcelona, Dubrovnik and Venice, to crack down on mass tourism. Amsterdam has fewer than a million residents, but 20 million people visit the city every year. And things get particularly bad at night, when young drunk men go wild in a city where both prostitution and pot are legal. Joanna Kakissis tells us how Amsterdam is trying to tame the nightlife without killing it. And just a quick warning - this story has some adult themes.

KING: Imagine trying to sleep to this outside your front door every night.

(CHEERING, LAUGHTER)

BERT NAP: When they start yelling, when they start puking in your potted plants, that's horrible.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Welcome to Bert Nap's life. He writes language textbooks for a living. And he and his wife live in a cute house next to a church in Amsterdam's Red Light District. If you're about to say, well, what did you expect, Mr. Nap, don't bother. He's already been told off by drunk guys in Elvis costumes. All British tourists, he says - one he caught peeing in his mailbox.

NAP: I went up to one of them. And I asked, well, why don't you do that in your own hometown? And he said, you are selling drugs. You are selling prostitution. I buy it. So he literally said, you [expletive] off because we buy your streets. We are paying for it. And just move. Go live elsewhere.

KAKISSIS: Bert Nap has been here for 40 years. In fact, people have lived in the Red Light District for hundreds of years. The neighborhood's always been a draw for visitors. But now it seems it caters only to tourists. Think cannabis cafes instead of grocery stores, trinket shops with condom key rings instead of places where you can actually get keys made or the smell of a popular stoner treat replacing the fresh bread and bakeries.

NAP: We have streets just selling waffles and Nutella. And people coming here think that's our national food.

KAKISSIS: Tourists pack the tiny alleys near his home, passing prostitutes standing behind glass windows. An American couple Bettina and Brett Carroll walk by holding hands. They're here on their honeymoon and are actually staying in an Airbnb in the Red Light District.

BETTINA CARROLL: And we noticed that last night we couldn't sleep because people were yelling. They were screaming until 4 o'clock in the morning, which was - I couldn't imagine living here and hearing that constantly.

KAKISSIS: Since even the tourists noticed the problem, something had to be done. So the Amsterdam city council is doubling the tax on hotel rooms, sharply curtailing Airbnb and banning new souvenir shops.

KAKISSIS: There's also this video targeted to the most problematic group - young guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: To increase awareness about what is or isn't allowed in the city.

KAKISSIS: The video appears on booking websites and at airports and explains there are hefty fines for yelling outside someone's house or using canals as toilets. Udo Kock is the city's deputy mayor.

DEPUTY MAYOR UDO KOCK: Look. At the end of the day, it's very simple. If the only reason - the only reasons for you is to come to Amsterdam to get drunk or get stoned, then don't come.

KAKISSIS: But if your reason is nightlife, don't worry. The city still believes in it and leans on this guy for help.

NIGHT MAYOR SHAMIRO VAN DER GELD: My name is Shamiro van der Geld. I'm 32 years old, and I am the night mayor of Amsterdam.

KAKISSIS: Not nightmare as in bad dream - he is the mayor of the night. And that means understanding all the things people want to do.

VAN DER GELD: Is nighttime something for people who want to dance? Or is nighttime something for people who want to read? Is nighttime something for people who want to paint? Or, like, who are the people who also want to live at night?

KAKISSIS: The mayor of the night is wearing a deep-purple hat and a nose ring. We walk through central Amsterdam as the sun sets. He seems to know everyone on the street.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He's really popular. He is. He is.

VAN DER GELD: Well, I talk with different types of people. I talk with clubs and club owners, programmers, stakeholders who are interested in nightlife or have their company in nightlife.

KAKISSIS: He's had to deal with tourists who overdose and jump out of buildings or who get stoned and then ride bicycles into traffic.

VAN DER GELD: Things that happen with people who do not understand or know how we live.

KAKISSIS: He's especially trying to reach out to kids, locals and tourists with initiatives like a late night space for teenagers.

VAN DER GELD: This group of kids, they wander on the streets. And from being bored, they start smoking hash or weed. And they find a cheap bottle of alcohol. So we need to create some place where they can hang out, where they can meet - somewhere that they don't get bored.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Everybody's waiting for him to dance.

KAKISSIS: This night policy has a record of success in Amsterdam thanks to Mirik Milan, a bearded former concert promoter who made the mayor of the night an official position here and held the post until earlier this year.

FORMER NIGHT MAYOR MIRIK MILAN: I really functioned as a liaison. I really was bridging the gap between government and the nightlife operators - but also people that just enjoy nightlife.

KAKISSIS: Over coffee near a canal, he explains that he helped license all night clubs away from the city center.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: They feature electronic music of course, which is a huge draw for young visitors.

MILAN: One-third of the people that come there, they are foreign tourists. So they are not hanging in the city center. They're hanging out in the outskirts of the city. The night is an opportunity where we can spread out people.

KAKISSIS: Milan travels the world helping cities create their own mayors of the night. London now has a night czar. And the idea has spread to the U.S.

MILAN: I just recently made the list.

KAKISSIS: So Pittsburgh and Iowa City?

VAN DER GELD: Yeah, good old Iowa City - and then New York, Fort Lauderdale, Austin.

KAKISSIS: In Amsterdam, Bert Nap, that neighbor terrorized by screaming tourists every night, hopes the mayors of the day and the night can calm the rowdy crowds outside his door.

NAP: People think they have to go to this pinpointed small Red Light District in Amsterdam. Well, it's ridiculous. There are so many things to see in Amsterdam - great things instead of this stuff. Tourists are only encountering tourists. You don't see the genuine Dutch.

KAKISSIS: You know, the genuine Dutch hiding out in their homes from drunk guys in Elvis costumes - the ones who want to make peace with the night. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Amsterdam.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOISIA'S "MANTRA (MAT ZO REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.