Amsterdam - up in smoke?

Amsterdam’s relaxed attitude has long been a draw for tourists. But as the city bans visitors from its infamous coffee shops, one resident, Senay Boztas, wonders if the high times are over

Amsterdam, city of canals, cafés and cannabis-selling “coffee shops”, may not be home to the British tourist’s lost weekend for much longer.

The Dutch government plans to make the shops private clubs with membership only open to city residents aged 18+, effectively banning tourists.

The policy is currently under constitutional review and should be decided for good (or bad, depending on your point of view) in the next few months.

Amsterdam’s tourist board, ATCB, is up in arms about the challenge to its “famous Spirit of Freedom”, while researchers at the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions are investigating the economic impact of the “wietpas” (weed pass). ATCB research suggests that one in 14 people come to the capital city for its 223 coffee shops, but almost a quarter of overnight visitors end up wiling away a few hours in one. Having lived in the Netherlands for 18 months, in both the canal belt and trendy Jordaan, this comes as no surprise to me.

A head frequently pops out of a group of noisy tourists to ask me and my baby: “Where’s the nearest coffee shop?” in a fine Glaswegian, Mancunian or Surrey accent. Tired of the request, I now misdirect them into the sea a few streets north.

Contrary to popular belief, soft drugs are illegal in the Netherlands. There is a policy of tolerance for personal use – “gedoogbeleid” – and under this, the coffee shops are allowed to sell exotically named strains of cannabis under strict conditions, including a limit of 5g per person, per day. Confusingly, there’s now a ban on smoking tobacco indoors, so only pure cannabis can be smoked in the shops, which serve non-alcoholic drinks (our recent British guests found a simple solution: get a takeaway and enjoy a memorably lost weekend rolling joints by a canal instead).

So, this might well be the last summer for British tourists interested in a 50 quid getaway to a Dutch land of mellow escape. On top of the wietpas plans, there are other proposals to close down coffee shops located within 350 metres of schools, which local newspaper NRC Handelsblad reckoned would mean the death of 187 Amsterdam establishments and six in 10 coffee shops.

So should you be surprised that the first home of legal gay marriage and a famously liberal attitude may not be so forgiving any more? Actually, the British reputation of Amsterdam as home to flagrant sex, drugs and general permissiveness is rather out of kilter with the more conservative reality. This is a place where, yes, you can be gay and married or straight and married... but as one town hall official told me, finger-waggingly, you had better be married. Sex and drugs are licensed, providing tax income and a measure of control, but then a favourite Dutch proverb is: “Just be normal – that’s crazy enough.”

Meanwhile, the anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party won 1.5 million votes in last year’s general election to become the third largest party in the Dutch House of Representatives.

Some people are still fighting, however. Machteld Ligtvoet, manager of communication at the ATCB, explains: “Amsterdam Tourism & Convention Board agrees with the mayor of Amsterdam that we should not implement a so-called ‘weed card’. We believe it is a solution for a problem that Amsterdam does not experience [and]… implies an act of discrimination towards foreigners. Furthermore, we fear that soft drugs will be sold on the street again, leading to more crime and dangerous situations. ATCB now never actively promotes soft drugs or coffee shops, but we consider the availability of soft drugs part of our famous Spirit of Freedom. And that is what people like about our city – you can be yourself in Amsterdam.”

Unsurprisingly, cannabis experts are with them. David Duclos, manager of Amsterdam’s Cannabis College Foundation, said: “The central bureau for statistics has stated that tourism could suffer by up to 20 per cent. And if you take cannabis out of the coffeeshops, there’s only one place to go: back on the streets, so the regulation of the quality and safety would be greatly diminished.”

His own organisation, recognising its inevitable bias, surveyed its visitors last October and found 85 per cent wouldn’t come to Amsterdam if the residents’ permit went ahead.

Meanwhile, some tour operators have said the scheme would have a negative impact on the marketability of the Dutch capital and the cautious Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions adds: “It is possible that a decision to introduce the Weed Card will reduce the number of foreign tourists who choose Amsterdam or the Netherlands as a destination for a stay. But a less liberal policy might also attract new tourists.”

There’s a coffee shop just 50 metres away from my front door, but I will not be going anywhere near it.

And other long-time Dutch residents, such as writer Rodney Bolt – whose forthcoming series of crime novels with prominent criminal lawyer Britta Boehler will reveal even murkier sides of the city – confesses that relief from British drug tourists might be quite nice.

“Most Amsterdammers will breathe a sigh of relief that they can reclaim weekends from roving, tribal bands of stag (and hen) parties, bizarrely-dressed, stoned and rowdy,” he confesses. Then again, “if the ban does come into force, the Dutch ‘business is business’ attitude, and the British aptitude for finding a path through gaps in rules, without actually breaking them, is sure to mean that together they will come up with a plan”.

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