Cannabis tourism has become extremely prominent in Amsterdam due to the easy accessibility of coffee shops and similar venues.
In reality, this type of tourism has a remarkable history dating back to the 1970s, when a legislative amendment vowed to separate hard drugs (such as LSD and cocaine) from the “recreational” ones like alcohol, Tabacco and hashish. Make no mistake though, marijuana is still illegal under the drug policy of the Netherlands, but the 1976 Opium Act set the centre stage for coffee shops to be granted a licence to sell with certain restrictions:
1. No advertising
2. No hard drug nor alcohol sales on the premises.
3. No sales to anyone under the age of 18.
4. No sale of quantities greater than five grams.
5. No public disturbances
The very first venue to behave as a coffee shop was called “Yellow Mellow” (1967), however, the Town Hall’s official record with the first granted permit went to “The Bulldog” (1975): By far the most famous one in the capital. This created a domino effect where hundreds of new coffee shops soon followed suit, and by the 1990s there were more than 1,500 of them in the Netherlands, and 350 in Amsterdam. However, the Dutch government drafts new directives every once in a while, and no new licences have been granted since the end of the 90s. To put it into perspective, today there are around 570 open shops in the Netherlands that sell Cannabis or other related products, and 1/3 of them (175) are located in Amsterdam. This decrease is also partly due to constant police raids which place the farmers supplying coffee shops at a greater legal risk.
It comes as no surprise, that tourism in recent years has focused around these venues. Although Amsterdams efforts to promote the city’s cultural, historical and artistic wonders have been fruitful, involuntarily, the city’s image has embraced marijuana and prostitution (The Red Light District) as its main attractions due to its relatively ‘relaxed’ laws and exposed visibility in comparison to other countries. In a recent survey, 65 percent of travelers aged 18—35 said that cannabis was the primary motivator for their visit, and when asked if they would return given a ban on coffee shop consumption, 44% answered that they would not, or that they would return less often than usual.
This means that Cannabis-centred tourism in Amsterdam is one of the primary incentives of visitation for young people. However, tourism before the pandemic created unwanted behaviours stemming from over-tourism, especially in the De Wallen and Singel neighbourhoods. In 2018, 19 million tourists visited the capital with a population of 850,000 people. This ratio of tourists to locals is oftentimes unsustainable since it generates an overcrowding effect and therefore, social tension due to noise, illegal activities, a rise in prices and disrespectful behaviours. Several steps have already been taken to combat over-tourism, such as raising tourist taxes and sanctioning Airbnb housing rentals, but the Town Hall is going one step further in 2021.
Femke Halsema, Amsterdams Mayor, has proposed to implement policies discouraging tourists to enter coffee shops and the Red Light District in order to limit drug consumption and sex tourism. The Mayor stated that: “Amsterdam is an international city and we wish to attract tourists, but we would like them to come for its richness, its beauty and its cultural institutions, and not tourists who only come here to walk around drunk and drugged. The problem is: there are just too many of them.” In a letter addressed to the Council, Mayor Halsema suggested the introduction of a “resident criterion”, which would allow only locals inside the coffee shops, provided they show their identification. This new move on behalf of the Townhall is said to be implemented by 2022, and research suggests that coffee shops would be reduced to only 73 by 2025 to meet local demand.
In response to this news, there are those who feel like closing coffee shops to overseas tourists might drive the drug trade towards the streets, such as Joachim Helms, a spokesperson for the Association of Cannabis Retailers in Amsterdam: “Banning the tourists from the coffee shops now will have a major negative side-effect. That is that the people who still want to smoke cannabis – and that’s a lot of people – will go to buy it on the streets from street dealers.”
Indeed, coffee shops are a critical piece of Amsterdam’s identity as a tourist destination, and there’s a whole industry behind them, but can it do without? Will a re-branded Amsterdam still attract visitors as they used to? Or will cultural tourism get more traction? Stay tuned for more.
“Amsterdam lives and breathes creativity. One moment you walk into a building from the 17th century, and the next you find yourself in a hub of creative start-up companies.” — Marcel Wanders