The word on everyone’s lips is “Venice”. It starts as a whisper, some time in early spring, when the lines in front of the Rijksmuseum get a little longer, and the weekend shopping crowds in the Negen Straatjes begin to test your bike-navigation skills. By the time it’s July those streets are flooded. You don’t even try steering through the crowds. You’d be like Moses, except that God is not on your side, the Red Sea will not part in your favour, and the crowds will wash you away: the middle-aged couples from the US and Germany, here for the museums; and the stag parties from Spain, Italy and the UK, here in their epic attempt to drink all the beer and smoke all the pot.
So you learn to take the long way round to your destination and skip entire areas of Amsterdam – which nevertheless means that, perhaps once every summer, you’ll be down on the pavement after crashing into a distracted tourist who walked in front of your bike, and the whisper becomes a curse: “Fucking Venice!” (The Dutch like to swear in English.)
“Venice”is shorthand for a city so flooded by tourists that it no longer feels like a city at all. In the famed 2013 Dutch documentary I Love Venice a tourist asks: “At what time does Venice close?” It’s very funny, except, of course, that it is not funny at all.
In his 1998 Booker-winning novel Amsterdam, Ian McEwan describes his protagonist walking down the Brouwersgracht thinking: “Such a tolerant, open-minded, grown-up sort of place: the beautiful brick … apartments, the modest Van Gogh bridges, the understated street furniture, the intelligent, unstuffy-looking Dutch on their bikes with their level-headed children sitting behind. Even the shopkeepers looked like professors, the street sweepers like jazz musicians.” Well, once upon a time, perhaps.
This year Amsterdam’s 850,000 inhabitants will see an estimated 18.5 million tourists flock to the city – up 11% on last year. By 2025, 23 million are expected. Last week the city’s ombudsman condemned the red light district as no longer under government control at weekends. Criminals operate with impunity; the police can no longer protect citizens; ambulances struggle to reach victims on time. The narrow streets on the canals are simply too crowded. But at least, as McEwan noted, our street furniture remains understated.
Google News, Bing News, Yahoo News, 200+ publications
There are several ways to react. One is to leave town. A study shows that in the past five years 40% of couples relocated to smaller towns after their first child. Many feel this is no longer a city to raise kids. Another response is to try to make as much money off the tourists as you can. And so anything remotely connected to the city gets branded as such: the coastal town of Bloemendaal is “Amsterdam beach” (Bloemendaal is way outside Amsterdam); the 14th-century Muiderslot “Amsterdam Castle” (Muiden isn’t at all part of Amsterdam). It’s like calling Canterbury “London Cathedral”, Liverpool “London Harbour”, or Oxford “London Hogwarts”.
It is not just about the logistics of managing a crowded city. Mass tourism challenges the way we live. The Dutch have always been proud of their liberal laws, allowing the use of soft drugs and the legalisation of prostitution. We truly believed ourselves to be the “tolerant, open-minded, grown-up” people McEwan describes. But those ideas of personal freedom are under strain. And one reason is that activities connected to the tourism boom have grown to such an extent that they appear uncontrollable. The red light district is filled with women forced there by traffickers. The soft drugs market is so large that some legal experts describe the Netherlands as a de facto narco state, where one can produce and sell drugs with only the slightest chance of ever being apprehended. It’s Venice vice.
And then, in the midst of it all, comes this week in early August. There is no proper name for it, but all of a sudden it’s much easier to get a table in your favourite restaurant, and the best place to park your bike is no longer occupied. It feels like people are missing – and as it turns out, they are. More than 2 million Dutch have gone on holiday, all at the same time – fleeing the flood of tourists in Amsterdam, and becoming a flood themselves, and someone in the south of France will be writing the exact same article I’m writing now (bonjour!). That’s the whole point of complaining about tourism. Are you staying home this summer? If not, you are someone else’s tourist.
But 21st-century mass tourism comes with a twist. In his 1958 essay Theory of Tourism, the German philosopher Hans Magnus Enzenberger contemplated the industry’s paradoxes. The tourist wants to find something new and unique, but will find only places already found, and mapped, by other tourists. So every tourist is a competitor: “The untouched can only be experienced by touching it. It is important to be the first,” he wrote, asking a pivotal question: “Did we create tourism, or did it create us?”
Sixty years on, the question is no longer what tourism creates, but what it un-creates. Ever since budget airlines and Airbnb made travelling so much cheaper, and with Asia’s rising middle classes starting to holiday here, we’ve watched the industry claim large parts of our city, changing its social fabric, opening shops and restaurants that serve only visitors, not residents. Throughout Europe the same stores sell the same stuff to the same visitors. Tourism is the Great Equaliser, replacing national identity with global uniformity.
Riding my bike, I don’t feel Amsterdam is being taken over by tourists: I simply don’t feel I’m in Amsterdam at all. Tourism’s changed not just the way we feel about our cities, but the way we feel about Europe. You can go to Paris or London and get a sense of repetition. Yes, the buildings are a bit different – and look, there’s the Eiffel Tower – but you are used to the shops, the coffee bars, the constant flow of visitors like you. An optimist might say: barriers are lowered, Europeans feel more alike, more at home in different countries.
But you can argue the other way round: differences are fudged and camouflaged between countries, between regions. Just as Brexit shocked us, the electoral successes of political parties across Europe with plans for a Frexit or Nexit keep on surprising us. Weren’t we part of the same family? Aren’t we awfully alike?
The great paradox of tourism is that it brings us closer physically, but that doesn’t always encourage us to connect with others’ culture, identity, or political debates. At high season we criss-cross each other in our millions: but is that enough to understand each other better?
• Joost de Vries, a Dutch novelist, is author of The Republic