When a traveller thinks of the Netherlands many will typically recall tulips, water canals, windmills and the land of bicycles. However, look a little deeper and this country in the heart of Europe has many hidden gems, iconic sites and well-known personalities such as Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Hieronymus Bosch and Piet Mondriaan. It is located in North-West Europe and consists of 12 provinces and some islands in the Caribbean; unofficially called the Dutch Antilles.

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The United Kingdom of the Netherlands was officially founded by the Orange-Nassau family at the beginning of the 19th century. Initially the territory of the country was just a river delta with numerous regions and counties and was under the rule of Austrian and Spanish lords. Since 1814 Holland has been a constitutional monarchy with the King as the head of the state, however the real power lies with the ministers. Due to hereditary kingship, after 30 years on the throne, Princess Beatrix abdicated in favour of her eldest son, Willem-Alexander in 2013.

The names ‘Holland’ and ‘The Netherlands’ often confuse travellers. The official name of the country is The Netherlands; however it is often called Holland. In reality, Holland only refers to the North and South provinces. Due to the power these provinces gained in the 17th century the country became known as Holland. Between the 17th and 20th century the Dutch played significant role in trading and controlled many territories as part of the Dutch colonies (all the way down to the south pacific).

Even though the nation of The Netherlands was born in the 19th century, the history of its cities goes back to as early as the 11th century. This was the time when the never ending battle of the Dutch against water started. A quarter of the country is below sea level thus a well-designed network of dikes and dams protects the country from flooding. The most ancient cities of Holland such as Nijmegen, Maastricht, Stavoren, Middleburg and Deventer represent a real historical gem showcasing architecture and culture that goes back to ancient times. Amsterdam, the capital city of The Netherlands was established around 1000 and has played a key role in the development of the country ever since.

Today the Netherlands is an all year-round destination attracting over 14 million international tourists per year. The population is 16.5 million making the Netherlands one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The Dutch people are very welcoming and open minded. They are very honest and tolerant. One can find many bustling cities such as Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht whit little canals, innovative architecture, lovely cafes and restaurants. The festival scene offers hundreds of programs for youngsters and elders alike. The water makes Holland and ideal place for sailing, yachting and canoeing. Dunes and sandy beaches of the west-coast offer excellent free-time activities. Once in the country, one should definitely get a tease of local cuisine: bitterballen, kroketten, stroopwafels, stamppot, the Dutch beer and cheese. Souvenirs like clogs, tulip bulbs, and little windmills are must haves (but make sure they are locally produced!)

Ethical Travel Issues and advice

Sex tourism:

The red-light districts of Amsterdam and other big cities of the Netherlands are popular destinations of international sex tourism. Even though it is said in most of the guide books that sounds and sights of these areas might be offending, they are all shown as must-see attractions. The main red-light district of Amsterdam, De Wallen is home of many brothels, sex clubs and red-light windows. In the past decades, as long as prostitution was voluntary it was never considered illegal in the Netherlands. Since 2000, according to law it is legal to run these kinds of businesses. Certain conditions must be satisfied and licenses need to be obtained by people running sex clubs, escort services etc. The new regulation was supposed to control and reduce the exploitation of prostitution. Despite of the efforts of the government to provide safe conditions for sex workers, sex tourism is closely linked to human trafficking, organized crime and child prostitution.

Human Trafficking:

Sex tourism and prostitution in the Netherlands has two major forms, illegal and legal. The legal forms include ’window prostitution’, ’escort services’, women working as ’independent entrepreneurs’ and the so-called ’toleration zones’. Toleration zones are assigned areas where prostitutes work on the streets. The aim of these zones was to provide a safer, controlled environment. However, street prostitution attracted human traffickers, illegal prostitution and drug dealers. Although cities like The Hague, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Eindhoven have already shut these zones down, in Utrecht, Arnhem, Groningen, Heerlen and Nijmegen these zones are still tolerated. When visiting areas of red-light districts or the toleration zones it is important to keep in mind that victims of human trafficking are often afraid to step forward out of fear and shame.

Coffee Shop Culture – Dutch drug policy:

The Netherlands is famous for its coffeeshops and tolerance towards soft drug use. This often attracts foreign visitors to Amsterdam and to other big cities. However, there are some misconceptions in regard of drug consumption in the Netherlands. It is absolutely illegal to sell, export, import or produce drugs. Although, due to the government’s drug policy, coffeeshops are allowed to sell cannabis (hash and marijuana) in certain amount under strict and regulated conditions. Coffeeshops cannot advertise drug use and are not allowed to sell soft drugs to people under 18. In order to reduce the demand for drugs only Dutch citizens are allowed to visit coffeeshops and buy soft drugs.

Travel tip: When visiting Amsterdam, be aware of drug dealers selling fake or bad quality drugs causing irreversible damages or even death to unassuming tourists.

Gay Culture:

The Dutch are very famous for their tolerance and progressive thinking regarding homosexuality. The Netherlands was the first country in the world where same-sex marriages were legalized. Amsterdam is a very popular destination for gay and lesbian travellers as the city boosts over 100 gay and lesbian bars, clubs, shops, hotels etc. The gay scene in the city is one of the biggest in Europe. Events like the Gay Parade Amsterdam are a week of celebrating guy culture and promoting tolerance and acceptance towards equal rights for homosexuals. The homomonument, located in the historical downtown of Amsterdam, represents the ongoing fight for freedom and the rights of those whose sexual orientation deviate from what is seen as the norm.

Ethical Photography:

Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.

Taking photos of friendly local people can be a highlight for many travellers and photographers. Smiles are universal ways to engage, as is showing people the photo you just took of them. If you show an interest in their work or ask them questions, they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. In some touristy places it has become common for people to ask for money for their photos to be taken. Do as you wish, but a photo of someone you shared a laugh with may have a better lasting impression than one you paid for. Don’t forget the same holds true for any porters and guides that may help you along the way. Take an interest in them and you’ll be rewarded with more great photo opportunities.

To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on ethical photography: https://tourismconcern.wpengine.com/ethical-photography/

Habitat destruction – birds, fish & seals:

The Netherlands has twenty national parks. The national park system is developed to protect the unique flora and fauna. Despite of the efforts, the increasing number of visitors has had numerous negative impacts on the natural environment of the Netherlands. The increasing number of resorts and touristic areas resulted in the loss of habitat in nature areas, it caused disturbance in the wildlife and bird breeding and resulted the erosion of land and dunes in the Northern coasts.

There are specific areas, such as the Dutch Wadden sea islands, that are famous for their exceptional flora and fauna. The shallow water is home to algaes and seaweeds providing food for the various inhabitants of the sea including fish, birds and seals. The Dutch coastline is also home of numerous birds and other species.

Travel tips:

  • Mud flat walking is an excellent way of discovering the unique nature reserve of the Wadden sea. Mudwalking is often called ’horizontal alpinism’. The hikers, together with an expert guide, walk along the bottom of the sea during low-tide while learning about the flora and fauna.
  • When visiting a nature reserves do not leave the signposted routes
  • Do not collect plants, animals or fungi
  • If possilbe join an expert guide so that you can learn about the unique wildlife

Urban Tourism Impacts:

The Netherlands, besides being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, attracts millions of tourists, both international and domestic visitors. Tourism has put enormous pressure on the social and natural environment. Cities like Rotterdam, Utrecht, Amsterdam and The Hague are very popular cultural and urban tourism destinations. The West coast attracts the most foreign visitors while Limburg, Gelderland, Friesland and Noord-Brabant are frequently visited by domestic visitors. Nature-based tourism activities such as hiking, cycling and water sports are also very popular.

The growing range of available tourism activities had several negative impacts on the environment.

  • Air pollution (holiday transportation)
  • Pollution of water and marine ecosystems (recreational navigation and water-sport activities)
  • Generation of liquid and solid waste
  • Increased water and energy consumption
  • Loss of habitat in nature areas
  • Disturbance of wildlife and bird breeding (nature-based activities)
  • Land and dune erosion (nature-based activities)

Travel Tips:

  • Participate in rural and agri-tourism (Farm stays)
  • Visit less popular areas in order to spread the economic benefits of tourism
  • Consume local products and produces (culinary tourism)
  • Use environmentally friendly public transportation
  • When visiting nature areas and national parks follow the assigned path

Useful Information

The proximity of the North Sea has big influence on the climate of the Netherlands. The country’s temperate maritime climate is characterized by cool summers and mild winters. Even though the temperature is always favourable (2-6 °C in winter and 17-20 °C in summer), rainfalls are quite likely. The weather is often breezy or windy due to the fact that it is a relatively flat country. Sometimes as a result of the windy weather conditions continental type weather characterizes the area; warm summers, and cold winters with less precipitation. The period between April and September is usually dryer then the rest of the year. With proper clothing you can prepare yourself for the changing weather conditions and enjoy the variety of activities all year round.

Travel tip: If you are visiting in spring, you can enjoy the tulip fields turning the country into one colourful palette or visit Texel Island where you can enjoy the sun, sea and the beach or just jump on a bicycle and cycle through Holland. Summer is perfect for picnics in the park, enjoying the canals or visiting Scheveningen. Autumn in Holland is the ideal time for city sightseeing including numerous museums and art exhibitions. In winter one can enjoy the beautiful winter landscape, the Christmas fairs and the little towns dressed in colourful Christmas lights. 

Due to the high population density and the extensive economic activities, the environment is under great pressure. The government is challenged by the question of how to increase economic activities in such a densely populated area while eliminating environmental degradation and pollution. Sustainable development has started in the 1980s and the new environmental policies target the problem of acidification, climate change, eutrophication, waste disposal, water depletion and nature protection. Environmental problems in the country have significant international dimensions due to the country’s regional economic and environmental interdependencies (trans-border water and air pollution, North Sea pollution).

Water and air pollution are still serious environmental issues in the Netherlands however the efforts of the Government have led to reduced negative impacts. The use of renewable energy is very widespread in the country. Electricity is created by using wind energy with the help of innovative wind turbines. Water supply is also very safe and is suitable for drinking. The Netherlands has one of the best water supply networks in Europe. Recycling exists throughout the country as well as deposit systems are in use for the separation of different types of waste. Big cities such as Amsterdam are continuously testing hydrogen buses to reduce harmful emissions. Tram, subway and train networks are also in use. Due to the size of the cities bikes and boats are very popular ways of transportation. The Dutch are also keen on consuming organic products and the use of eco-labels help to identify the source of specific items. 

The Dutch are famous for their egalitarian approach. Children are raised to be tolerant towards individual differences. People are respected and everyone has the right to be heard even in a strict hierarchical work environment. The Dutch are usually conservative, hard-working and well-organized. Privacy is highly valued, thus they tend to be formal and reserved when it comes to meeting new people. Deriving from the value of privacy personal questions should not be asked when meeting Dutch people as it would be considered inappropriate. Ethnic discrimination and racism does not generate much debate probably due to the high tolerance level of the Dutch society. In general open discussions about income, class and status differences are taboo as equality is strongly emphasized in the society.

In everyday life, handshake is a very common form of greeting although friends and family members often greet each other with three kisses on the cheeks, always starting from the left side. Coffee has significant role in social life. Coffee rituals are closely linked to the meaning of the word “gezelligheid” meaning “social”, “cosy” or “pleasant”. Dutch people are very open, straightforward and outspoken; however this directness might seem rude for people coming from different cultural backgrounds. The Dutch celebrate birthdays in a very unique way. If you are a friend or a family member of the one celebrated you will be congratulated as well several times. Knowledge of the world is highly appreciated in this country and long debates about political or social issues are often the highlights of the evenings. 

The cuisine of the Netherlands is very mixed as it is home to many different cultures that has influenced its kitchen in several ways. The huge selection of restaurants and cafes ranges from Chinese, Indonesian, Surinamese, Italian, Mediterranean, Turkish etc. However, despite of the external influences, the Dutch have their own traditional cuisine and culinary customs. In general people eat three times a day. Breakfast is followed by a cold lunch, usually between noon and 1pm. They often have bread with cold cuts and different cold toppings. Dinner is served between 6 and 7pm, relatively early compared to the Mediterranean countries in Southern Europe. Dinner often consists of meat, potato and vegetables.

Stew (stampot) is a very popular meal mainly in winter. It is usually made with sauerkraut or kale and served with fried bacon, sausage, pork meat or beef, potato, onion, apple and gravy. Pea soup (snert) is also a very popular dish. The Dutch version is very creamy and thick and it is served with rye bread and smoked bacon. The Netherlands is very famous for its cheese industry. The most well-known types are Gouda, Alkmaar and Edam. The so-called Snack bars are very important parts of the Dutch food culture. The vending machines providing hot snacks such as frikandels or croquettes are typically Dutch. Just like fried snacks, French fries are also consumed in a unique way. They are often topped with mayonnaise, peanut sauce, ketchup and raw onions. The salted herring (Hollandse Nieuwe), tracle waffels (stroopwaffel), liquorice and chocolate sprinkles (hagelslag) are also vital parts of the traditional Dutch cuisine. 

Today approximately twenty-two million people speak Dutch. Dutch is said to be the third language after English and German in the family of Germanic languages. The history of the Dutch language is very well documented and we have evidences of rich literature. Dutch is spoken in both the Netherlands and Belgium, however the terminology is slightly different. The names “Hollands”, “Netherlands” and “Vlaams” all refer to the same language which might be confusing for foreigners. Today “Netherlands” is the most widely used designation in both countries.

Although “Nederlands” is spoken in both Belgium and the Netherlands, there are different dialects changing region by region in both countries. The eastern part of the Netherlands is called the Low Saxon area and one can find dialects such as the ‘Gronings’ in the Groningen region or ‘Drents’ in the Drenthe region. ‘Brabants’ (Brabant) and ‘Limburgs’ (Limburg) are very similar to the Belgium dialects. The dialect of Zeeland (Zeeuws) is actually closer to “Flemish” than to standard Dutch. In many cases these dialects can further be broken down into local varieties. Nowadays dialects are less widely spoken but there are still cities where the local dialect continues to prosper. In general, the Dutch speak very good English or German.

Useful phrases:

  • Good Morning: Goedemorgen
  • Good Afternoon: Goedemiddag
  • Good Evening/Night: Goedenavond
  • Where are you from?: Waar kom je vandaan?
  • What is your name?: Wat is je naam?
  • Can you help me please?: Kunt u mij alstublieft helpen?
  • Thanks a lot: Hartelijk bedankt
  • Nice to meet you: Leuk je te ontmoeten.
  • Can you tell me how to go to…?: Kunt u mij vertellen hoe ik bij…kom?

The majority of the religious population is Catholic (29%), 19% is Protestant, 6% Muslim and 1% Hindu and Buddhist. What is interesting is that almost half of the population (44%) does not belong to any religious groups. The ethnic minorities such as Indonesian (2.4%), Turkish (2.2%), Surinamese (2%), Moroccan (2%) and Caribbean (0.8%) form the non-Christian part of the population. Nowadays, religion plays less important role in the social and cultural lives of the locals, except in small rural areas. The towns of Zierikzee, Utrecht, Dordrecht, Zwolle and Assen can be found along the so-called Dutch Bible Belt where religion still plays an important role in everyday life. The Southern part of the country is rich in religious processions. The origin of some of these processions goes back to the Middle Ages, such as the blood processions in the province of North-Brabant. 

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