Amsterdam warns sex and drugs tourists to ‘stay away’

The Dutch capital’s city council believes that young male British tourists tend to disturb the calm of night, especially in areas such as the Red Light District. The motto of the new advertising campaign to discourage their presence? ‘Don’t come to Amsterdam’

Barrio Rojo Amsterdam
Women stand in the window of an establishment in Amsterdam’s Red Light DistrictHoracio Villalobos (Corbis via Getty Images)
Isabel Ferrer

With 22 million tourists recorded in 2019 – and a similar figure estimated for 2024 – the municipal government of Amsterdam is trying to find a balance between the flow of visitors and the quality of life in a city of 880,000 inhabitants.

The City Council wishes to maintain Amsterdam’s reputation as an open city, but has put the brakes on the commercial exploitation of this concept. To this end, it has launched a campaign aimed at tourists who are attracted only by the nightlife, the tolerance for soft drugs and the windows of the Red Light District, where prostitution was legalized in the year 2000.

In its first phase, the new initiative is aimed at British men between the ages of 18 and 35, who are discouraged from visiting the Dutch capital. The motto of the campaign is quite straightforward: “Stay away.”

The municipal plan includes a freeze on bachelor parties and pub crawls, greater restrictions on booze cruises down the canal, a more balanced distribution of urban tourism, earlier closing times for entertainment venues and a ban on smoking hashish in several downtown streets. This broad set of measures will be imposed on all nationalities… but for now, the publicity campaign advertising these measures is focusing on young male British citizens. Those who are looking for “a cheap hotel, drinks and bachelor parties” are not welcome.

Nearly half-a-million tourists from the United Kingdom visited the Netherlands in the third quarter of 2022, according to national statistics. Jerina van Heck – spokesperson for the Amsterdam City Council – explains that the city’s doors are open to everyone. However, she notes, “the notion of freedom has been commercialized in recent years… some companies misuse the image of the city to sell it as a place of unlimited possibilities.” This type of rowdy tourism – as well as the offers designed to attract it – “is not considered desirable by the municipal headquarters.”

The biggest nuisances tend to be concentrated in the Red Light District, located in the heart of the city. With narrow sidewalks and canals, the City Council has spent years trying to reduce the crowds that disturb the lives of some 5,000 residents. Enforcement collides with the pull of a setting that offers multiple bars, restaurants, casinos and game rooms… in addition to the famous large windows that give the area its color. One mustn’t forget that the tourism guides openly highlight the hashish shops and the venues dedicated to legalized prostitution.

Jerina van Heck repeats that the campaign has only just begun and the council isn’t going to stick to a specific country, “but the British are a widely represented group in nightlife and cause above-average disturbances in the capital.” The problem is that Amsterdam often tops the list of preferred destinations for those from the UK who are looking for short trips.

Specializing in bachelor parties for groups, The Stag Company is one of the British firms that has been organizing this type of trip inside and outside the country for 20 years. Tom Bourlet – the firm’s head of marketing – says over the phone that the Dutch municipal campaign has had the opposite effect for them.

“In the last week [of March], search traffic to our website was up 13,279% compared to the previous seven days. In the same period, bookings increased by 403%. On the other hand, Amsterdam – which was ranked 12th in February among the most popular places [to visit] – rose to sixth place in March. This April, it has risen to first place,” Bourlet affirms.

He does admit, however, that, generally speaking, there’s an element of truth in the criticism of stag parties. But he softens this by adding that he thinks that his business is “stigmatized.”

It may seem like an easy stereotype to say that groups of young Britons focus on the Red Light District. “It comes up on our lists, [but] behind activities like a tour of the Heineken brewery, go-karting, a private canal boat tour, or playing bubble soccer.”

The city’s campaign includes two videos. The first shows an episode caused by the use of drugs, given the permissiveness – not legalization – of the consumption of hashish in Amsterdam. The protagonist is a young man who has collapsed on a public bench. An ambulance takes him to the emergency room and he ends up in a hospital room with an IV drip in his arm. Meanwhile, some large subtitles remind us of the mistake of travelling to Amsterdam for the purpose of getting high.

In the other clip, a staggering man is stopped by the police in an alleyway. Once at the police station, a file is opened, his fingerprints are taken and he spends the night in jail. In his case, the fine is 140 euros. The warning is identical for both: “Stay away.”

Stag Web is another British company dedicated to bachelor parties. It has been organizing group outings since 1999 – nationally and abroad – and Tom Probert, the company’s public relations man, agrees with his colleague on the portrayal of troublemakers. He assures this newspaper that “they are a minority in the set of thousands of people who go to these parties.”

According to Probert’s data, since the pandemic, “Spain and Portugal have become very popular as destinations.” At the same time, demand for countries like Poland and cities like Budapest has fallen. “The reason is the perception of closeness to the war in Ukraine.”

While he affirms that people cannot be legally prevented from travelling, he acknowledges that the British have “a certain reputation abroad, because of the football fans.”

“No one denies that this is a cultural issue that must change in the United Kingdom. It goes beyond a specific age group.”

In the balance sought by the Dutch capital, the total number of tourists should not exceed 20 million per year. Hence, the council’s plans include the promotion of a creative and sustainable strategy “that attracts visitors, while contributing something positive to the city and its inhabitants.” But the pull of the Red Light District – which is a drag on the municipality – is recognized by the mayor herself, Femke Halsema. She has admitted that the sex business is part of Amsterdam, but doesn’t want the prostitutes to become an attraction. “It’s humiliating and unacceptable,” she declared. That’s why she’s promoting a new concept.

Her proposal is the creation of a great erotic center outside the Red Light District. 100 of its 249 windows would be moved to the modern premises, which would have new spaces dedicated to restaurants, art and culture. However, this idea has clashed with the European Medicines Agency, which moved to the Netherlands from London in 2019 due to Brexit. Its new headquarters is located near the budding erotic center, as indicated by the plans presented this past March.

Local residents also reject this idea, while the RAI Amsterdam Convention Center – also close to the erotic center’s planned location – has already voiced its concern. The project is currently in the open discussion phase for affected parties.

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