No tourist traps! What might a sustainable visit to Amsterdam look like?

Photo: Amsterdam&Partners

With mass tourism now marring the quality of life in Amsterdam, Deborah Nicholls-Lee looks at initiatives to make a trip to the Dutch capital a more sustainable affair.

A three-person line of defence along one side of the boat seems to work best, our nets semi-submerged and poised to entrap passing flotsam. We – two boat-loads of eco-conscious visitors – are cruising the Amsterdam canals on a plastic fishing trip with Plastic Whale, clearing the greasy waters of rubbish, while taking in the beauty and history of the city thanks to our knowledgeable skippers.

Among our haul, there’s a painted wooden tulip, a slipper and a colossal Fatboy beanbag, its punctured seam bleeding tiny polystyrene balls into the water, creating a choking hazard for wildlife. But it’s PET plastic we’re really after, as this can be melted down to make more boats like the ones we’re travelling in, enabling more people to take part.

In 2018, to mitigate the unpleasant effects of mass tourism, Amsterdam’s Enjoy and Respect campaign brought in a raft of fines for antisocial behaviour, including €140 for dropping rubbish. In contrast, Plastic Whale offers a more fun and positive approach to the problem, making tourists part of the solution. Founded in 2011, the organisation set the tone for a gradual shift towards a more sustainable model of tourism in the capital and is one of a number of innovative ideas featured in the Untourist Guide to Amsterdam (2019).

Photo: Plastic Whale

This handbook for more conscious tourists includes activities designed to support social projects and build a bridge with residents, many of whom now see visitors – of which there were an estimated 19 million last year – as a nuisance. Hearing the story of migrants as they take you on a boat tour of Amsterdam on a reconditioned people-smuggler, plucking and cooking pesky pigeons, or undertaking a bit of urban gardening are among the suggested activities.

But sustainable tourism here is not only about meeting locals or getting your hands dirty. When we break for lunch at de Kas in the Frankendael Park in Amsterdam Oost, it’s clear that fine dining can also be part of the package.

The organic produce served here is freshly picked in the on-site greenhouse – which gives the restaurant its name – or brought in from their field just 25km away. The beetroot gazpacho starter with burrata, radicchio and bergamot proves a fragrant and unusual flavour combination with a rich range of textures, while a main course of celeriac and truffle is buttery and sweet. A dessert of Jerusalem artichoke ice cream, Thai basil and lemongrass is a fresh and delicate finish to possibly the best meal I’ve had in the capital.

The city’s museums, too, are upping their green credentials, making them particularly deserving of the eco-traveller’s patronage. The Hermitage Museum on the Amstel river, for example, has become one of Amsterdam’s leading institutions for sustainability, despite the planning restrictions imposed on it as a monumental building.

In 2016, it launched an award-winning heat-swapping scheme with its neighbour the Hortus Botanicus. The botanical gardens needed to warm their exotic hot houses, while the museum required cooling most months due to high visitor numbers and a need to climate control its precious exhibits. The result was a 425m double pipeline between the institutions. In 2018, the project saved an estimated 124,518m³ of gas and 204,000 kWh of electricity, amounting to a 239,000kg reduction in CO2.

Over in Noord, another eco-friendly symbiosis is taking place in a bike warehouse employing staff with limited access to the labour market. Every year, around 80,000 bicycles are abandoned in Amsterdam.


Roetz buys them back from the municipality and refurbishes them to make new models (from €499). Yotel Amsterdam, The Student Hotel Amsterdam City and Hotel Jakarta Amsterdam are already renting Roetz bikes to their guests, enabling them to travel the city carbon-free, while supporting a green and socially responsible enterprise.

As hotels compete for a high sustainability ranking, the offer for the eco-tourist has broadened. At the budget end of the scale, there’s the EcoMama hostel with dorm rooms from €18 a night. Staking the middle ground are the four Conscious Hotels, with the newest branch, The Conscious Hotel Westerpark, (doubles from €95; breakfast €15) powered entirely by wind, and offering lovely green views across the park.

In 2018, eco-luxury announced itself in the city when two swanky but sustainable hotels opened their doors in up-and-coming areas which could potentially benefit from tourism rather than be stifled by it. The QO (doubles from €175) demonstrated that a high-end feel – mozaic flooring, gold trims and velvet furniture – is compatible with sustainable practices such as flushing toilets with ‘grey’ water from showers and sinks, and harvesting food from a rooftop greenhouse fertilised with home-farmed fish waste.

Hotel Jakarta (doubles from €170 incl. breakfast), for its part, has created an exotic, East-Indies-inspired oasis on the Java Eiland in a building made from 6000m³ of certified wood and constructed around a ceiling-scraping sub-tropical garden sustained by rain water collected from the roof.

Photo: Hotel Jakarta

Ushering visitors away from the centre and introducing them to new neighbourhoods is a key part of making tourism more sustainable here and one of the targets of the municipality’s City in Balance policy (2018-2022).

‘The positive aspects of tourism have been overshadowed by the negative ones,’ says Claartje van Ette, who manages the programme. ‘We try to keep an attractive mixture of functions in the city … For example, if you have too many hotels [in one area], the area gets boring – it’s not vivid anymore.’

Despite sharing oliebollen with strangers on the ferry – courtesy of Elena Simons of the Untourist Guide – and dining in hotels (QO and Hotel Jakarta) where our carbon footprint is minimal, I can’t shake the feeling that our two-day contribution to sustainable tourism is a drop in the ocean.

Nevertheless, there is a strong sense that like-minded organisations are joining up here and the sustainability in tourism movement is gathering pace.

What’s evident from the trip, above all, is that exploring a city in a respectful and environmentally responsible way connects you to the destination – and the people that live and work there – in a way that the traditional tourist experience does not. And that’s good for everybody.

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