Where is the table? The shattered landscape of tourism policy making


Amsterdam is a major tourist destination in Europe. It seems to have some characteristics that discern from the other case studies of SMARTDEST and offering a lens to compare the different contexts and policy regimes.

Tourism is not the main economic activity, although visitors have a significant contribution to the local economy, of approximate 10%. Amsterdam did not (yet) become a ‘theme park for tourists’ but remained a city where people live and work. Social exclusion can be observed, but it is hard to relate it to tourism and/or tourism related policies.

Instead, the burden of tourism mobilities concerns most of all overcrowding. It is a result of the staggering growth of visitors year after year, both tourists and day-time visitors. Meanwhile, the number of inhabitants also grew. The overcrowding and the changing tissue of the inner city, dotted with hotels, bars, coffeeshops and shops catering to visitors became a burden for those who live in those areas

The tipping point is around 2014, when the voice of these (wealthy and influential) residents started to dominate the public discourse, resulting in a less tolerant policy regime, like banning alcohol on the streets and putting the relocation of the Red-Light District high on the political agenda. Paradoxically, despite the growing influx of visitors, residents stay and most have no intention to leave.  



Amsterdam in the past seemed to find ways to balance the interest of residents with that of visitors, despite the challenges. What lessons can be learned?

  • Place transformation: even though there are significant changes in the city center in response to tourism and residents report a reduced sense of belonging, but most have no intentions to move out, even in the most tourist-infested areas. Why?
  • Regime changes: over the past 20 years, the focus has shifted from city marketing for economic growth to managing tourism for the benefit of residents’ quality of life. How were these policy changes shaped including the one in progress? Above all since 2014, the media seem to change their tune.
  • Participatory approaches: in line with the city’s Eigenlogik, various initiatives (top-down and bottom-up) attempted to reinvent tourism by finding sustainable and inclusive solutions that cater to tourists while maintaining a livable city for residents.


Understand how policy changes are shaped and what participatory approaches are (in-)effective means thereby

  • Policy timeline analysis since 2000, to instill which regime changes took place
  • Discourse analysis of mainstream media since 2000, to understand the main narratives
  • Quantitative research on liveability, employability and other topics based on extensive and publicly available datasets
  • In-depth interviews with 28 key informants, including policymakers, urban planners, activists, academics representatives of residential organizations, entrepreneurs and lobbyists
  • Stakeholder mapping, thereby comparing individual perspectives with the collective aggregated map.
  • Series of workshops that still go on, even though SMARTDEST activities stopped
  • Research through design by developing and testing new formats to enhance participation


Despite the growing numbers of visitors, residents are not leaving even in the busiest places where the number of reported nuisances is high. Also, there are no tourist-only districts. Why?

Areas catering visitors aren’t separated at district level, but are intertwined with residential areas

Residents are content with their neighborhood, although there is a trend that more people expect to leave

Large quantity of social rent in all parts of the city, even in the city center

Even though housing is one of the main challenges Amsterdam faces, it hardly is related with tourism.

  • Strict Airbnb policies
  • Due to social rent, there are no ‘tourist-only areas at district level

In the Center, the reported nuisances are much higher than in any other part of the city, even though other indicators as crime or deterioration are positive compared to the decades before.

The Center is adapted to accommodate many visitors. Per 1000 residents the Center district offers:

356 hotel beds & 69 unique Airbnb listings,

26 restaurants/hotels

21tourism shops

How do residents perceive the liveability of the houses and neighborhoods they live in? Most residents are content, also in the city center where visitors flock to.


Interviews with various stakeholders revealed bewildering different views on who is at the table of tourism policymaking, or when and where decisions are made. There is no one/organization truly in the driver’s seat, nor an overseeing director.

  • A lack of clarity on stakeholders manifested on who is involved and who needs to be involved. All interviewees recognized only a (very) limited number of stakeholders, with little overlap between interviewees. In particular, stakeholders outside of the tourism realm went unnoticed.
  • Fragmented policymaking landscape as decisions are taken at different legislative levels, by different decision-making bodies at different moment in time. This makes it difficult to create coherent governance, particularly at a local level, which is often dependent on decisions from higher levels.
  • Limited sense of ownership, mandate and accountability among stakeholders. The decentralization of power and depolitization of responsibility has created a policy landscape where it is difficult to hold stakeholders accountable. There is no overseeing director aligning policymaking, either.
  • Participation fatigue manifests, not just because of tokenistic tendencies but also the wicked nature of the problem, demanding design-led approaches. Expectations are not in line how to progress, and stakeholders and residents continue to feel excluded from tourism development.


Enhancing collective ownership in participatory approaches


Participation is under pressure and the research question is how to enhance collective ownership in participatory co-design processes in tourism?

The method chosen is research through design, whereby design activities are a legitimate part of the research. In this case, 4 series of workshops that are designed, conducted and reflected on in order to learn the challenge of participative policymaking and how to improve this. Next to corroborating insight from previous activities, also three themes were explored

Findings are warranted by means of action validity  (does it work) and consensual validity (do stakeholders agree?)

9 workshops

4 themes

~100 unique participants


A tale of two cities
In the perception of many residents – even in the most touristy areas as – they live in another city than the visitors do. Yet, these two cities are not spatially divided, but intertwined: in one street shops, coffeeshops and hotels cater visitors; the next is a residential street. This divide even manifested in policymaking workshops, whereby dedicated policies and legislations for residential and for visitor areas were developed (and even will be part of 2 pilots). Yet, as numbers increase, it becomes more difficult to keep the two intertwined cities apart and tolerance fades.

Understanding participation fatigue
Apart from power inequalities and tokenistic tendencies, also the nature of design itself is a driver for fatigue. It is impossible to invite ‘all’ to a table to ideate and make decisions as no one oversees all. Also, the issue is entangled with many other issues that are dealt with at other moments in time at other ‘tables’. You can’t workshop yourself out of wicked problems, with few engaged stakeholders, regardless how well these are facilitated. Consequently, participatory approaches addressing tourism at the scale of Amsterdam as a whole risk creating inflated expectation of what can be achieved.

Participatory approaches function once it concerns local issues, the agenda is pliable and the scale is limited, considering time, complexity and number of participants.

Innovation and legacy

The Citylab as part of SMARTDEST has stopped, but the activities will not stop.

  • One of the series of workshops will extend for a period of a year, as residents, entrepreneurs, the municipality and the university agreed to ‘bring it home’ until extensive pilots are held in the city center
  • A new national collective of tourism researchers has been started, partly based on SMARTDEST efforts and lead by SMARTDEST researchers: the Expertise Network Sustainable Urban Tourism (ENSUT). It launched in May 2023 and focuses the question: how can we (re)construct urban tourism in a sustainable and resilient way?’
  • SMARTDEST researchers are now part of the network set up by Amsterdam & Partners, focusing on the hustle & bustle as result of tourism mobilities.
  • Methods developed are further enhanced with the (national) Expertise network of Systemic Codesign (ESC)
  • The ULTlab Amsterdam ‘s lablead, a SMARTDEST researcher, will carry out a professional doctorate (2023-2027) in which most of the issues/methods will be part of.

SERIES A: Feedback findings

One of the findings concerns the fuzzy policy ecosystem where stakeholders do not feel they have a ‘seat’ at the decision-making ‘table’. Around 20 participants (tour guides, social entrepreneurs, tourism and hospitality students, policymakers and city marketers) collectively produced a stakeholder map, indicating where they positioned themselves and other stakeholders. Results were compared it with maps constructed on the base of W3. Again, the lack of overview and agency/influence manifested.

SERIES b: ABM as a tool for policymaking

Can Smart technologies help experts in tourism policies to make better informed decisions by means of modelling possible consequences of those decisions? Three workshops whereby ABM experts, policymakers, law enforcers and data specialists are codesigning scenarios. Most care is put into collecting stakeholders with the required expertise and who well represent the organizations or departments that need to have a say.

The results are interesting, but ambiguous. Collectively, they developed a scenario which fits ABM and is highly relevant for Amsterdam: to run simulations of possible policy interventions in the Red-Light District (as gates or one-way streets) on the base of real, observed data. However, due to the sensitivity of the data and ethical concerns, the data are not allowed to ‘leave the building’, a major obstacle for future activities disabling researchers to work apart from the municipality.

SERIES d: young adults

Series focuses on young adults: how do they view the impact of tourism and what would they advise policymakers?  Participants are students in the ULT-lab, in- and outside of Amsterdam. Two workshops were designed to probe their feelings of belonging, using a mix of embodied and creative tasks. The policy briefs encourage a healthier balance between tourism and the local community; more opportunities to attract  tourists in West or the Bijlmer; and to car-free Sundays.

SERIES b: ABM as a tool for policymaking

The Red-Light District, attracting many ‘party’ visitors, shapes the discourse in Amsterdam. We engaged with local residents and entrepreneurs. In this series policies are codesigned with residents, entrepreneurs and the municipality.

To get involvement an open agenda was chosen to respond to whatever is relevant for stakeholders, which proved to be  waste as collection services are difficult. The workshop series aims to get cleaner streets by means of developing  and testing new policies by means of 6 months lasting pilots.

The results are promising. Stakeholders including the municipality are enthusiastic, there is budget for pilot(s) and there are active residents. However, it is a genuine wicked problem and it equires another year before a pilot can be started, requiring ongoing activities of the Inholland team.