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

<span>Photograph: Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters

It’s 9.30pm and groups of British lads are gearing up for a big night out in Amsterdam’s red light district.

Although the narrow streets echo with French, German, Spanish, Dutch and Irish banter, this week Amsterdam city council launched a campaign to tell Britons from 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. His two friends – unnamed as they have “serious jobs” – have also come before things change.

As Amsterdam braces for another rowdy weekend of visitors, things are indeed changing in this medieval district, where sex workers have operated for centuries. 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.

Related: Amsterdam tells young British men who want a ‘messy’ weekend to stay away

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 the situation was a health hazard: “It is so busy that emergency services cannot get through the canals any more,” she said. “We have to find solutions.”

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

Unfortunately, the answer is yes, say tourism experts and Dutch comedy sketches … but, then, so are the Dutch. In 2014, the then London mayor, Boris Johnson, and the late 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 confirmed “the majority of those causing nuisances are (most often groups of) men between 18 and 34 from the Netherlands and the UK who visit Amsterdam with only 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, lying drunk with all your mates in a gutter at 9.30am. “A lot of French and Italians come here to smoke dope and cycle around the city ringing their bells,” she said. “But with Brits, it’s the alcohol. The Dutch think of bowler hats, gentlemen and bus drivers who say good morning. But put three beers in them and a kind of monster is unleashed!”

The natives, however, are just as bad. In recent years, Dutch tourists and football fans have been criticised for riots in Rome, raving in Spain and even a deadly brawl in Mallorca – so the “stay away” campaign will be expanded to the Dutch themselves next.

But some think the city is taking the wrong approach. Theodoor van Boven, founding director of the Condomerie shop, and in a group of businesses trying to regulate nuisance, said the campaign was “scandalous, stigmatising for the image of Brits and doomed to fail”. He said: “My wife recently had five drunk Brits in the shop, and went to talk to them, wobbling back and forth. Eventually they got seasick and went away.

“Businesses and residents want to deal with antisocial behaviour and dealers, not a ‘stay away’ campaign. The Dutch, Amsterdammers, North Hollanders and other nationalities can misbehave just as well!”

Oscar Coster, a barman in the Old Sailor cafe bar, agreed. “They were busy for years trying to get so many tourists to Amsterdam, and 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 come from.”

Down the road on the Utrechtsestraat, Robbert Overmeer, a bar owner and chairman of a local business association, pointed out that during the Covid pandemic, in the absence of British tourists, antisocial behaviour by those of other nationalities suddenly became apparent, for example French, German and Belgian tourists sleeping in their cars, urinating and worse next to them, and buying drugs to take home.

“The French and Germans are still coming,” he said. “It’s not only the English who make problems. Banning non-residents from buying drugs in coffee shops is the way to stop it.” That idea was proposed by the city’s mayor but rejected by the council.

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. “If this campaign helps to reduce the numbers of drunken tourists, so much the better, although reservations have been expressed in our group whether it’ll work, or might put off more people from visiting.”

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

He said: “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.”

Felicia Anna, a former sex worker who set up Red Light United association and on Thursday demonstrated at city hall against changes for window brothels, said sex workers have no problem with British people. “I have never understood why they say this about British men,” she said. “To be honest, I like working with them. Even though they are drunk, they are funny.”

Back in the Old Sailor, a group of young American men were 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.”