Amsterdam (CNN) – A couple of weeks after the first coronavirus case arrived in the Netherlands, they told us to stay inside. Bars and schools have closed and my hometown of Amsterdam has stopped.
After the first feelings of confusion and uncertainty, I slowly got used to the idea. There was a calm in the streets that I hadn’t felt in years.
In the last decade, Amsterdam has become a hurried and chaotic place, its occupants are more and more irascible. The city’s population of 863,000 was inflated by nine million tourists each year.
The shops in the city center were delivered to cater for them, selling waffles, souvenirs and cannabis seeds. The stores intended for residents have closed due to extreme rental excursions and the lack of customers.
More and more locals have started to avoid the most beautiful part of their city, as its houses were rented to tourists and expatriates.
The center was dying, to the point that the government stopped promoting the whole of Amsterdam as a tourist destination.
I live on the west side of Amsterdam, a neighborhood with fewer tourists and mainly local inhabitants.
Since we have an “intelligent” block, we have been “allowed” to exit. In the beginning, few people did it. Buy groceries or coffee to go. Or just take a walk in the park. It has become significantly quieter.
But it was nothing compared to what I experienced at the center.
After a few days of blocking, I jumped on my bicycle and went to the heart of the city, just for fun, which I haven’t done for years.
I crossed the deserted square of Dam and crossed Damstraat, a road normally full of tourists who wandered and paid little attention to traffic.
Dam Square on May 4, before the National Remembrance Day ceremony which normally gathered crowds in central Amsterdam.
“PATRICK VAN EMST” / ANP / AFP via Getty Images
I crossed the red light district, walking through its narrow streets and crossing its narrow bridges.
The emptiness revealed the true beauty of this area. And I didn’t have to ring the bell once!
In the end, I returned home, through the Zeedijk, a road normally so crowded that it would be impossible to ride a bicycle.
I had tears in my eyes. A kind of deep emotion that I haven’t felt for a long time: love for my city. Her beauty touched me, as she did in her youth – the 80s and 90s – when the city was still mine.
And I was not alone.
Mathys van Abbe, who lives on a boat in the Oudeschans, a large canal near the red light district, feels the same way.
“Before Corona, the Nieuwmarkt area and the red light district were flooded with tourists, especially in the past two years,” he says. “There was waste everywhere and it was stressful, if not impossible, to ride a bicycle on certain roads.
“Now, the red light district is a gift for us. There is so much beauty!
“I have more contacts with my neighbors, the canals are clearer than ever and the nature of the city is flourishing. The constant noise is gone and there is calm. Amsterdam has a circadian rhythm again. It seems a bit of a retreat. “
“Cleaner, quieter, tidier”
Amsterdam’s abandoned red light district pictured in April.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images
Van Abbe lives in a busy area, but in a relatively quiet location.
Others who live in the midst of tourist attractions have had to deal with huge numbers of visitors every day.
Eva de Vos’ house is located behind the Royal Palace in Dam square.
Before the blockade, he says he could almost literally walk on his head if he left his apartment.
“Now I can park the bike in front of my house, there are fewer tram accidents and I don’t have to clean up the mess on the sidewalk in front of my door every day,” he says.
“We had to cope with 30,000 pedestrians who passed by our house daily. At night there was waste, noise, people screaming. The neighborhood is cleaner, quieter, tidier now.”
There is a downside to the absence of tourists. Sales have gone down and stores are failing.
It has become clearer than ever that life in the city center was centered on visitors.
“Amsterdam is no longer Amsterdam,” says De Vos. “Many shops have closed their doors, I lack the liveliness on the streets. Of course, I like to see tourists come back to us when everything is over, but only half of what was normal in past years, please.
“I couldn’t walk two meters without people asking me for the way to their hotel, the red light district or, of course, the Anne Frank house.”
“More like a community”
This April 2017 photo shows a typical crowded street in the center of Amsterdam.
ROBIN UTRECHT / AFP / Getty Images
The Anne Frank House welcomed 1.3 million visitors in 2019 – 108,000 per month – but he too has closed its doors and is now experiencing the consequences.
“Ninety-two percent of our visitors were tourists,” says communication manager Maatje Mostart. “Since we are an independent and unsubsidised museum, you can imagine how important these visitors are to us.
Sharon O’Dea lives on the picturesque Bloemgracht canal, directly opposite the Anne Frank house.
He says the city has lost some of its energy due to the absence of visitors, but this is not without its benefits.
“It was a coincidence to be careful what you want,” he says. “While many find the hordes of tourists annoying – especially large groups of stag parties – parts of the city are deserted without them.”
O’Dea says she likes tranquility.
“Now it looks much more like a community,” he adds. “People in the shops recognize me when I enter. Local businesses quickly set up delivery services and takeaway options, and we’ve started using them regularly to help them move forward in these difficult times.”
Another change was the return to Dutch as the lingua franca of the city, while native English speakers vanish from its cafes and shops.
For O’Dea, originally from the UK, it’s one of the things that stands out.
“One thing I’ve definitely noticed is hearing the Dutch speak much more in the streets and shops,” he says. “Because there are usually so many tourists, people just gave up on English, but I noticed that people speak Dutch first and when they hear me, they switch to English.”
The central streets and canals of the city have been very quiet in recent weeks.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images
Museums such as the Anne Frank house are not the only places to close doors.
Nik Poldervaart, co-owner of the Café de Kroegtijger, located on the tourist road Zeedijk, was forced to stop serving beer to his customers.
“Fortunately we have a small circle of repeat customers,” he says. “However, 20 to 30% of our guests were tourists.” When we reopen on June 1st, we will not fail at first because we can only accommodate 15 to 20 guests due to the corona protocol according to which people must make a reservation and keep a distance of 1.5 meters from each other .
“I think we can do it for about two months, but then the news of the whole situation will disappear. People will get used to the idea that bars and restaurants are open again and maybe they make fewer reservations.”
Before the horn virus, Café de Kroegtijger welcomed a good mix of locals and tourists. Poldervaart hopes that the Amsterdammers will visit the city center more often when all restrictions are lifted and tourism returns.
“One of the reasons I never went to this area before running my bar is because I want to be able to speak and order in Dutch and I want to be with other Amsterdammers,” he says. “We need to attract more locals and avoid visitors who think that everything is allowed here.
“And inform tourists about our unwritten rules, as if you don’t smoke a cane near children, you don’t visit the red light district like a family – what are you doing there with a child? – and watch your step so don’t you end up in one of the channels. “
Enjoying the calm
“I actually like to live here again,” says Jacqueline Tas.
Courtesy Jacqueline Tas
Another particular tourist spot is the Amsterdam Flower Market, near where Jacqueline Tas lived for 20 years.
“When I came to live here there was a cheese shop around the corner and a butcher, a greengrocer, a fish seller, a kiosk where I could buy my newspaper,” he says. “Now all those shops are gone. Besides, you see almost no Amsterdammers outside the center around here.
“This part of the city has become too crowded with visitors and I know I shouldn’t say it – because I know the city needs tourists financially – but I am enjoying the calm intensely and actually I like to live here again. We have become the part quiet city. “”
A peculiarity of the blockade and the absence of tourists was the upside down world that was created in Amsterdam. While the city center has been almost abandoned, the outside areas have remained lively.
And one thing has become clear. The people of Amsterdam crave more of this peace and quiet. Although it may be a little too quiet right now, they have had a taste of what life could be like and want a better balance in the relationship between tourists and locals.
It is something that the city was trying to deal with even before the crisis.
Geerte Udo is CEO of Amsterdam & Partners, a non-profit organization that was responsible for marketing the city until 2017. Since then it has focused on environmental management and guiding visitors to lesser known places.
“We are currently working on a sustainable recovery of the visitor economy if the measures are liberalized,” says Udo.
Blocking measures are starting to decline in Amsterdam, with boats allowed to return to the canals over the weekend.
KOEN VAN WEEL / ANP / AFP via Getty Images
The organization is trying to focus on visitors, such as business travelers, who “add value” to central Amsterdam and its residents without causing inconvenience, he says. The premises will also be targeted.
“The campaign concerns the rediscovery of the cultural offer, the historic center of the city and several other neighborhoods, local entrepreneurs, public space, etc.”, adds Udo. “In this way, the campaign contributes to the renewed bond between the residents and their city, the environment and the other. It is based on our goal of seducing the Amsterdammers to rediscover their city.”
While visitors are welcome, he says the organization wants to create a sustainable economy – in terms of society, environment and business – around them.
“We need to take steps to minimize the negative effects of a potentially growing influx of visitors,” says Udo. “Good examples are the ban on Airbnb in some parts of the city and the fight against monoculture.”
Keep these plans in mind, the pandemic could be seen as a valuable restoration for the city, helping Amsterdam, its residents and organizations like Amsterdam and its partners to get back to the beginning and rebuild.
But for now, the Amsterdammers enjoy a very welcome break for as long as it lasts.