As Amsterdam bows out, what will be the new capital of cannabis tourism?

As Amsterdam bows out, what will be the new capital of cannabis tourism?

Countries like Thailand and South Africa are slowly opening up to marijuana tourism, a multibillion-dollar industry. But others want to avoid Amsterdam’s problems.

Published September 7, 2023

6 min read

Amsterdam has dominated cannabis tourism for 40 years, but now it’s stepping back from this multibillion-dollar industry, creating opportunities for emerging marijuana destinations in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. New rules in the Dutch city’s central tourist area limit alcohol sales, require bars to close earlier, and impose a €100 ($107) fine for public marijuana smoking.

Amsterdam mayor Femke Halsema has told media that marijuana tourism is a blight on the city, fostering crime and public disorder, and has proposed banning foreigners from its cannabis cafés. Since the Netherlands decriminalized cannabis in 1976, it’s been a bucket-list destination for weed enthusiasts.

Tourism experts say Amsterdam’s new policies could alter the global cannabis tourism industry, recently estimated by Forbes to be worth $17 billion annually. Thailand, South Africa, Uruguay, Jamaica, Malta, Mexico, Canada, and the United States have all loosened their cannabis laws, which could increasingly attract tourists, experts predict. Germany may also enter this equation, as it may soon legalize cannabis.

Next capital of cannabis tourism?

Leading that pack of potential Amsterdam successors is Thailand. Long renowned for strict drug laws, the Asian nation legalized cannabis use last year and now has thousands of dispensaries. It is swiftly becoming a major cannabis destination, says Michael O’Regan, tourism lecturer at Scotland’s Caledonian University.

“Thailand is a freewheeling environment at the moment, with very little restriction on consumption by tourists,” says O’Regan, an expert in marijuana tourism. “The country is attracting cannabis tourists across the Asian region and may increasingly attract Europeans.”

Visitors are the main customers of Thailand’s cannabis stores, says Mendel Menachem, spokesperson for High Thailand, a website cataloguing these dispensaries. Popular Thai destinations Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Samui, and Chiang Mai each have many shops where tourists can freely buy the drug.

More than one million Thai residents have registered to grow cannabis legally, says Pipatpong Fakfare, assistant professor of tourism at Bangkok University. But he warns that Thailand’s cannabis laws are complicated. Legal cannabis products there cannot contain more than 0.2 percent THC.

That’s a very low level for recreational marijuana. California dispensaries sell cannabis with 35 percent THC. “I think we need a firm guideline and regulation on where and how cannabis should be sold or distributed here before Thailand could become a cannabis capital,” says Fakfare.

(How did Thailand’s ‘Egg Boy’ statue become a tourism phenomenon?)

By comparison, Germany is unlikely to embrace cannabis tourism if it legalizes the drug, says Julius Arnegger from the German Institute for Tourism Research. “Politicians in favor of liberalization of cannabis are keen to explain there will be no cannabis tourism as a result of the [proposed] new law,” says Arnegger.

“They explicitly point to the Netherlands as a model to be avoided. Under the new law, cannabis shall only be available for purchase in limited quantities and for own consumption by persons who are registered in so-called cannabis clubs, which will make purchases difficult for international tourists.”

No European destination will rush to become the next Amsterdam, says O’Regan. “I don’t think any city wants to repeat the same experience and have tourists fly from across the region to consume drugs,” he says. “Barcelona was using a similar club model [as Germany has proposed], and many clubs were open to tourists. However, this led to a proliferation of clubs and recruiters who approached tourists to sell club memberships. This has led to a recent crackdown in Barcelona on all clubs.”

(Here’s how to explore Ibiza beyond the nightclubs.)

Meanwhile, a lower profile cannabis tourism scene is developing in Africa. South Africa, for one, decriminalized cannabis use in private spaces in 2018.

“South Africa’s cannabis tourism is poised to be a major niche tourism segment for the country,” says Tafadzwa Matiza, tourism lecturer at North-West University. He says the sale of hemp-based fabrics, clothing, and food products may create further economic opportunities. South Africa also has an increasing number of marijuana tours and “bud and breakfast” venues, which offer both accommodation and legal cannabis.

Cannabis tourism in the Americas is also expanding, says Grand Valley State University tourism lecturer John Lipford. His home state, Michigan, which is on target to exceed $3 billion in cannabis sales this year, has an array of marijuana-themed accommodations, restaurants, and festivals.

So, too, does Canada and the U.S. states of Colorado, California, Oregon, and Washington. In the future, Lipford says, cannabis tourism could boom in Costa Rica, Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru—all of which have loosened their marijuana laws in recent years.

(Science is seeking to understand how marijuana works and how it can fight disease.)

Cannabis tourism etiquette

Lipford cautions cannabis tourists to research stores where they can safely purchase marijuana. Find out whether public smoking is permitted, the potency of cannabis products offered, and whether there are legal gray areas between medicinal and recreational use. “That means all the difference between having a pleasant holiday or potentially being locked up abroad,” he says.

Disrespectful behavior by tourists is perhaps the greatest threat to the future of cannabis travel, Lipford says. “It is not wise for cannabis tourists to believe they are in some sort of sheltered play land where the rules don’t apply to them, or that they will be safe during their experience,” he says.

Ronan O’Connell is an Australian journalist and photographer who shuttles between Ireland, Thailand, and Western Australia.

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