Overtourism – Can policymaking counteract the phenomenon?

By Guido Stompff and Roos Gerritsma InHolland University of applied sciences.

Tourism is a wicked problem and there is no centrally coordinated policymaking to balance opposing interests. The narrative of growth has failed, but a new one hasn’t arisen or embraced.

Amsterdam is a major tourist destination in Europe and one of the case studies of SMARTDEST. Despite Amsterdam is renowned for its tolerance, since 2014 the discourse towards tourism and its excesses turned sour. COVID-19 revealed its residents what the city is without the crowds and arguably it was one of the drivers for the overwhelming support for a public petition, demanding, among others, to cap the number of visitors. It lead to a recent and significant regime change, gaining international attention. At the same time, it is merely one of the policy changes of the past 20 years.

We wanted to know how these policy regime changes are shaped and by whom. 21 key stakeholders, were interviewed, including planners and policymakers, representatives of (influential) resident organizations, activists, experts, entrepreneurs, and representatives from the industry, each offering another lens on the drivers underneath policymaking in relation to tourism. Two key insight emerged.

First of all, it became clear that tourism is a genuine wicked problem and there is no such thing as central policymaking, a central director, or a political arena where opposing interests are balanced. Tourism is entangled with other issues as housing, and politics are myopic, focusing on high-profile problems nearby: “what they then do is a kind of (..) problem-picking: (..) the coffee shops; the windows in the Red light district… It never works; on the contrary, new problems are created (..) because all the problems are interconnected”.

The inherent solutionism is strengthened by the lack of a centrally coordinated policymaking: policies are made at different level (district, city, MRA, national): “We have broadened the highways [nationally]. We have enlarged Schiphol [Airport]. (..) And now we are wondering [in Amsterdam]: ‘where did all these people come from?’”. Also, policymaking is done by different departments and involving fairly different stakeholders. For example, hotel policies are made and enacted by the department of Economics, whereas Airbnb policies are shaped by Housing. As policymaking is so dispersed, the respondents feel they are left out, and finger-point at others who they believe are influential, who are merely pointing back. At a larger scale, it can be argued that these feelings are a driver for the participation fatigue of residents and organisations that were discussed in the interviews.

Second, the shattered landscape of policymaking implies that there is no long term holistic vision. Respondents discussed the former ‘grand narrative’ of growth as tourism had to mitigate the economic recession of a decade ago. Polices were enacted that instigated entrepreneurship: “everything should be possible, only the excesses must be addressed”. It worked (too) well as numbers skyrocketed. Combined with a faltering enforcement and ignoring the interests of locals, this resulted in much discontent and eventually a political U-turn. However, a new and widely embraced narrative has not been developed yet. The interest in one of the promising attempts of last years (City in Balance) has flawed and recently other attempts were done to develop a another new vision, e.g. by a urban planner who was assigned by the mayor; or by Amsterdam & Partners, a hybrid public-private network organization. Respondents reported mixed feelings about these initiatives.

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