Taleb Rifai concerned about emerging trends in Amsterdam

As former Secretary General of the UNWTO, the specialized agency of the UN mandated with promoting healthy and sustainable tourism, I am watching with concern some of the emerging trends in beautiful Amsterdam. Amsterdam, once known as one of the best examples of a city welcoming sustainable tourism growth in a responsible and manageable manner is starting to turn its back on tourism. Today, I argue, Amsterdam is at an inflection point; it can either use tourism to its advantage or waste the opportunity.

During my career, I have seen cities utilizing the full benefits of tourism and seeing it as an opportunity not only to contribute to the economic well-being of its citizens, but also as a powerful tool for engaging and interacting with other cultures. Such cities use tourism to break down barriers and stereotypes and in turn further tolerance and understanding, contributing to world peace. I have seen Denmark for example engaging with the tourism industry to ensure more tax revenues, London working hard to bring tourism benefits to outer boroughs and now Palermo involving its citizens in tourism decision.

I have also seen cities demonize tourism and reach the quick assumption that the problem is in tourism itself and the very nature of this human activity. The easy conclusion would be, therefore, to cut down the numbers and blame it on easy targets such as Airbnb and others. Such cities choosing for the “easy way out” solutions end up, in many cases, embracing a “populist” approach to their challenges. Such cities rely more on emotions and less on fact, but more seriously and, typical of the populists politics and tactics, appeal to anger and fear, in this case tourism and anything that is different and foreign becomes the enemy. I have seen policy-makers fueling xenophobia in popular European destinations for example, cities that continue promoting its tourist hotspots instead of hidden gems and now Amsterdam wanting to limit its own residents to share their homes with visitors.

Tourism, like any grand human activity, that has grown in an impressive manner in the last 70 years, has a downside to it, but that should never distract us from the opportunities it offers, when well managed, to make this world a better place. Travel and tourism is responsible for over 10 percent of the global GDP, equivalent to 1 in 10 jobs, and grows faster than the global economy itself. The UNWTO estimates that by 2030 there will be 1.8 billion travelers crossing international borders yearly. Whether this translates in 1.8 billion opportunities, or 1.8 billion disasters is up to us and how we manage this impressive growth.

Amsterdam, the city which very foundation is built on openness and trade, the city that invested heavily in growing tourism in the last decade, is today heading down a different path. Instead of preparing for the expected 25 million visitors in 2025, it is focusing on limiting capacity for overnight guests. Instead of allowing more Amsterdammers to profit from tourism, it is proposing to limit and even ban home sharing in certain areas. And instead of growing the current 70,000 tourism related jobs and the over €2 billion direct economic gains generated by tourism, it is choosing to have less and scapegoating tourism.

Once a city becomes known not to welcome more visitors, it will lose everything and not only the numbers that it does not want. Let’s not forget over one in ten jobs are dependent on tourism in Amsterdam.

Rather than continuing its current policies – which it has been pursuing for the last few years without any desired effect – Amsterdam should focus on long term tourism management solutions as tourism continues to grow. Firstly, Amsterdam should focus on maximizing the benefits of tourism to all citizens through creative ideas. Making sure every citizen not only shares in the profits of the tourism business, but actually profits from the very business itself and creates their own self-employment; Secondly, Amsterdam needs to better disperse the crowds of visitors over time and space, to decrease seasonality and alleviate the pressure from the city center and bring economic benefits to communities that have not typically benefited from tourism, beyond tourist hotspots; Lastly, Amsterdam policy-makers need to encourage the tourism industry to come together, boost public-private partnerships and seek collaboration between sectors to catalyze the change needed to keep tourism destinations healthy.

Tourism, when well managed, provides an incredible boost to host communities. I therefore plea to Amsterdam policy-makers to work together with the tourism industry, not against it. Poor management is the demon, the enemy, not tourism and its growth