King of Amsterdam's canals

23rd July 2004, Comments 0 comments

Meet the man who put the fun back in the canals and gave Dutch people and tourists alike the opportunity to explore Amsterdam's waterways under their own pedal power.

Visitors and residents to the Dutch capital are familiar with the hustle and bustle on Amsterdam's canals. But 20 years ago, the waterways were much quieter. Tourists spent far more time looking down at the canals than on the water itself.

Felix Guttmann is still smiling after 20 years on Amsterdam's canals

Felix Guttmann played a major part in changing all of that and helped breathe life back into the city's vital arteries.

The fact that the Netherlands was in recession in the early 1980s did not deter Guttmann, a 23-year-old business administration graduate, from embarking on a revolution — hiring out pedal boats on Amsterdam's canals.

While other companies were cutting back or closing down, Guttmann decided to act counter-cyclically. "A recession is the best time to start a business. A new company is big news and banks are willing to help," he said.

The media also latched onto the Canalbike idea and ran several features about the young man who was going to bring the tourists to the water.

The weather also helped — early in the year it was truly awful, but rose to 25-26 degrees Celsius when the first Canalbike pedal boat was launched. The good weather encouraged a lot of curious Amsterdammers to come out and see the dawn of a new era in the working lives of the capital's canals.

The company now runs 100 canal bikes from five central locations in Amsterdam and another 14 since 1989 from one location in Utrecht.

They are available for individual or group hire and in keeping with Guttmann's philosophy of keeping things interesting, Canal Company also offers mystery tours in which participants criss-cross the 17th-century ring of canals while answering questions along the way.

He hit on the Canalbike idea of canal cruising after spending an enjoyable evening attending a party on a boat on Amsterdam's canals.

The banks and the public were positive, but the infamous Dutch bureaucracy was another matter.

Taking in Amsterdam's canals by boat is a tourist favourite

"Every civil servant in Amsterdam spent a year trying to find a reason why we couldn't do it. In the end they couldn't find one and we did it," says Guttmann as we motor down the Prinsengracht in luxurious style in a classic saloon boat.

It was a lovely Amsterdam summer's day as we slowly passed by some tourists in canal bikes.

The tourists appeared to be enjoying themselves as they pedalled under the hot sun, while I enjoyed myself also, sipping a cold beer in my chauffeur-driven ride.

Guttmann is a businessman to the core and is happy to talk about Canal Company: how Canalbike led to Canalbus, which allows sightseers to hop on and hop off at 14 different locations around the city near the major museums, attractions and shopping centres.

"We started Canalbus in 1990 and aimed to provide a higher quality than what already existed and learned from the mistakes already made by the older companies," he said.

Under Guttmann, Canalbus was the first canal company to introduce "green" boats that ran on gas rather than diesel.

Newer additions to the stable include a hard rock tour, a jazz tour and interestingly, a pizza cruise (you can pick from 5 different pizzas during a 90-minute cruise). And of course, Canal Company has boats and catering ideas for lunches, business meetings and parties.

At the beginning of this year, the three distinctive divisions started operating under the group name Canal Company.

But as we sail along, Guttmann reveals his driving force — his love for the city and its people.

"I think you really will agree Amsterdam is the place to live," Guttmann says. He revels in the city's unique atmosphere and cultural heritage and the fact it is not too big.

He loves each bend and bridge on the canals and the streets they run through.

"I can get to work on my bike in six minutes," he declares with some satisfaction.

With as much — if not more — enthusiasm than he showed for his company, Guttmann expresses confidence that the much debated tensions between allochtonen (immigrants) and the native Dutch are exaggerated.

As has happened so many times in the history of Amsterdam, he says, newcomers will find their place in the city. 

He is now working part-time with Canal Company and others now run the firm on a day-to-day basis.

But not one to sit still, Guttmann has lots of ideas about other business schemes. "But that isn't so interesting just now," he says as he sits back and relaxes in the sun.

Knowing what he knows now, would he embark on his career on the canals if the clock was turned back 20 years?

"Given the chance, a lot of people might not have taken the risks they took in their youth. Would I do it again? Yes, I think I would… I have had very few sleepless nights," he says smiling.

23 July 2004

For information on Canal Company, see its website

[Copyright Expatica 2004]

Subject: Amsterdam canals + tourism + Canal Company

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