Amsterdam (CNN) — Once crowded with too many tourists, Amsterdam’s canals remain empty, even as the Netherlands eases travel restrictions. The infamous Red Light District is also largely deserted. The Dutch capital remains a ghost town.

But what about that other famous Amsterdam institution? How have the city’s cannabis cafes fared in these troubled times? Deprived of out-of-town visitors, many of those who flocked to the city just to take advantage of liberal drug laws, did they survive?

And, in a world of face masks and concerns about inner exhalations, were they even allowed to stay open?

In fact, Dutch cafes never fully closed during the pandemic because they were classified as essential businesses, unlike restaurants, cafes and nightclubs.

But cannabis cafes have taken a devastating blow due to the lack of international tourists who were responsible for much of their income. And while some have adapted to a new way of life, those who work there fear they are in danger of disappearing.

“For business, it’s been devastating,” says Nick, an employee of the downtown Otherside cafe who didn’t want to give his last name for privacy reasons.

Before the pandemic, the cafe was usually full during the week, loud and buzzing with atmosphere as people socialized with each other while smoking a marijuana cigarette or eating a cannabis brownie. but on a Thursday afternoon in early February, there is only one person sitting inside, working on a laptop while sipping a cup of coffee and smoking a cannabis joint.

“In my cafe, it was very empty and boring,” says Nick. “But other cafes [outside the center] are busier than ever due to take-out demand. During the coronavirus, everyone is sitting at home and smoking.”

survival mode

The liberal laws that allow the sale of cannabis in cafes have long been an attraction for tourists in Amsterdam.

Véronique Durruty/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

More than half of the capital’s 167 cafes are in the center and heavily dependent on tourism, says Joachim Helms of the BCD cafe owners’ association.

“The cafes in the center were really in survival mode [during the past two years]Financial aid from the government kept them afloat, but that only covered their rent and staff leave, and they struggled to generate income, Helms says.

When the coronavirus overwhelmed Europe in March 2020, the Dutch government announced a strict lockdown and ordered the closure of all hospitality establishments, including cafes. This decision was reversed almost immediately after people started buying cannabis illegally.

“The government was concerned that if it kept cafes closed people would turn to the streets and illegal dealers,” Helms said. Shops have been allowed to remain open, even during the strictest lockdowns, for take-out service.

The pandemic has highlighted that it is mainly tourists who consume cannabis in coffee shops; locals tend to collect it and smoke it elsewhere. While cafes have remained largely empty for the past two years, demand for cannabis has surged and take-out sales have increased dramatically.

“In residential areas, business has been particularly good,” says Helms. “Especially at the start of the pandemic, when people were stockpiling [cannabis] in case cafes close during lockdown.”

In a survey conducted by Trimbos, a Dutch institute for mental health and addiction research, 41% of 1,563 respondents said they had used more cannabis since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Almost half – 49% – said they smoked as much as before. Three-quarters used cannabis almost daily after the government introduced lockdown measures. The main reasons for using more cannabis were boredom, stress and loneliness. Some 75% smoked daily.

“The takeaway business has been very good,” says Maeve Larkin, who works at Hunters cafe in the centre. “People tend to buy larger quantities [than when they consume it in the cafe].”

Relaxed atmosphere

Before the pandemic, authorities sought to restrict foreign tourists' access to cafes.

Before the pandemic, authorities sought to restrict foreign tourists’ access to cafes.

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Even though the lockdown is over, strict rules remain in place for the entire Dutch hotel sector. All customers must show a vaccination pass, in the form of a QR code on their phone, to buy cannabis in a café, maintain a distance of 1.5 meters indoors and wear masks when visiting. the command. Cafes must stop serving at 10 p.m., but are allowed to stay open until midnight for takeout.

These rules make it difficult for cafes to accommodate large numbers of customers and encourage people to stay indoors, instead of buying takeout.

Helms says the lockdown restrictions have changed Amsterdam’s cafe culture.

“The foundation of the cafe policy is that there are places where you can consume cannabis responsibly and safely and where you can meet people from all over the world,” he says.

“The thing about coffee shops in Amsterdam is the relaxed atmosphere and its culture. It’s gone now,” says Larkin, adding that the current situation reminds him of the American model, where in some states people can buy cannabis. in dispensaries.

“Now there are two people at a table and there is no more spontaneity. This cafe and its surroundings were crowded all the time, now it’s just dead.”

“The rest of Europe and the rest of the world should know that we are open again,” says Nick. “I think it will be back to normal by mid-March.”

As cafes slowly begin their recovery, they face another hurdle: a possible ban on foreign tourists.

Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema has proposed a policy that could see foreign tourists banned from cafes in the city. Other cities in the Netherlands, including Rotterdam and Maastricht in the south of the country, have already introduced such a ban to prevent cannabis tourists from crossing the border from Germany and Belgium.

The ban aims to make tourism in the center more manageable and control the supply chain for cafes, Halsema told advisers in a letter in 2019. She said cafes could put “quality of life in the city ​​center under pressure”.

Illegal market

The Amsterdam council also wants to prevent crowds of tourists from returning to its red-light district.

The Amsterdam council also wants to prevent crowds of tourists from returning to its red-light district.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Amsterdam has been struggling with mass tourism for years, alongside growing local dissatisfaction with loud noise, litter and unruly tourist behavior. Before the pandemic, locals complained that Amsterdam had been turned into a “Disney tourist world”.

“We don’t want to go back to what we saw before the pandemic, where massive crowds in the city’s red light district and entertainment areas caused a nuisance to residents,” the city council said in a statement. last summer.
In a government survey in August 2019, which questioned 1,100 international tourists aged 18-35 who had visited the red light district, 34% of respondents said they would come to Amsterdam less often if they could not go to coffees. , and 11% said they would not come at all.

“If you [introduce] tourism ban, the illegal market will grow,” Helms says, adding that this happened in March 2020 when the government shut down cafes.

“I don’t see a tourist ban happening,” says Helms. “It would be a very bad decision for people living in the center of Amsterdam,” he says. It would also have a huge effect on the thousands of people who work in cafes in the Dutch capital, he says.

“Cafe culture is so unique in Amsterdam. It would be really sad if it disappeared,” says Larkin.

Top image credit: Pierre Crom/Getty Images

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