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‘It damages our free spirit’: war on British tourists won’t work, say Amsterdammers

It's 9.30pm and groups of young British men are gearing up for a big night out in Amsterdam’s red light district. Although the narrow streets echo with French, German, Spanish and Dutch banter, this week Amsterdam’s city council launched a campaign to tell Britons aged 18 to 35 in search of a “messy night” to stay away.

Lewis Flanigan, 24, from Middlesbrough, is taking the chance to party while he still can. “My plans are for sex and drink, going around the bars until 6am,” he said, peering into brothel windows beside the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal.

This is the first weekend in which 249 window brothels in De Wallen – the red light district – will close at 3am instead of 6am and bars will shut at 2am. From mid-May, cannabis smoking will be banned in public. And people in Britain searching the net for terms such as “stag night Amsterdam” now see city marketing videos warning of costly souvenirs such as fines, a criminal record or hospitalisation.

A city with a population of 880,000 but 18 million tourists a year is taking action against its image as a hub for sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. At a meeting in Amsterdam Noord on a proposed multistorey erotic centre – to replace 100 sex-worker windows – the mayor, Femke Halsema, said on Wednesday: “It is so busy that emergency services cannot get through the canals any more.”

Diederik Boomsma, a local councillor who coined the term “glassy-eyed tourist zombies” for the worst partygoers, is wondering why his compatriots are so happy to stigmatise British people. Are the UK’s young men as bad as all that?

Yes, say tourism experts and Dutch comedy sketches – but so are the Dutch. In 2014, the then London mayor, Boris Johnson, and the Amsterdam mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, clashed swords over whether the problem was “sleazy” Amsterdam or “how thousands of fellow Brits behave”. By 2018, research in Amsterdam confirmed that most of “those causing nuisances are [often groups of] men between 18 and 34 from the Netherlands and the UK who visit with one purpose in mind: partying and acting crazy”.

A tourism expert who for years worked on changing Amsterdam’s image said many Britons took the invitation to be yourself to mean being dressed in a tutu and lying drunk with all your mates in a gutter at 9.30am. “A lot of French and Italians come to smoke dope and cycle around ringing their bells,” she said. “With Brits, it’s the alcohol. The Dutch think of bowler hats and gentlemen, and bus drivers who say good morning. But put three beers in them and a kind of monster is unleashed.”

The natives, however, can be just as bad. In recent years, Dutch tourists and football fans have been criticised for riots in Rome, raves in Spain and a deadly brawl in Mallorca – so the campaign will be expanded to the Dutch next.

But some think the city is taking the wrong approach. Theodoor van Boven, the founding director of the Condomerie shop, who is involved in a group of businesses trying to regulate the city’s nuisances, said the campaign was “scandalous, stigmatising for the image of Brits and doomed to fail”.

Oscar Coster, a barman in the Old Sailor cafe bar, agreed. “For years they tried to get tourists to Amsterdam. Now they want them to go away,” he said. “Brits aren’t the worst. It’s big groups of men. We don’t let them in – it doesn’t matter where they’re from.”

Others believe most British visitors contribute in a positive way. “While the stag dos get the headlines, some 16,000 resident Brits and their families quietly get on with their lives in Amsterdam,” said Tricia Tarrant of the British in the Netherlands group. “Reservations have been expressed in our group over whether this campaign will work, or put off more people from visiting.”

Some are afraid that advertising these problems might actually glamorise them. Tim Verlaan, an assistant professor in urban history at Amsterdam University’s Centre for Urban History, said the campaign could add to Amsterdam’s allure as a “vice city”.

He added: “Modern attempts to ban stag parties and stoners are not only a response to the rapidly increasing number of tourists but also the result of a decades-long gentrification process. So, do away with the Brits from Newcastle who come to drink and the French from Lille who come to smoke, and welcome in the Americans and Japanese who are here for the expensive restaurants, better hotels and luxury department stores. It damages Amsterdam’s free spirit and makes the city centre less affordable and accessible for all Amsterdammers.”

Back in the Old Sailor, a group of young American men are getting stuck into a round of beers.

“If someone chooses to live here, that’s a risk they have to take,” said Luke Gastelum, 21. “The British blokes we have come across are loud as hell. We are just as loud.”


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