Cycling into Amsterdam’s red-light district from Dam Square on a summer evening requires advanced maneuvering skills. Throngs of tourists clog the sidewalks. They spill into the road without warning, blocking traffic while they check their phones or take a picture, though it’s not clear what they hope to capture. In just one block I counted four pizzerias, four souvenir shops, five take-out chains, and five Argentine steakhouses.
Walkable, picturesque, and famous for its ample supply of sex and drugs while still feeling relatively safe, Amsterdam is more popular than ever. In 2018, the city expects to host almost 9 million overnight visitors, double the number 10 years ago. And that’s only counting hotel guests; an additional 1.6 million stay on cruise ships or rent through Airbnb or similar services. Together, they bring in billions of dollars, but also put a huge strain on the city’s infrastructure, services, and environment. Meanwhile, the downtown is turning into a northern version of Venice: a congested, soulless theme park that the locals do their best to avoid.
Though much smaller than Paris, London, or New York, Amsterdam has long been a cosmopolitan city. Some 53 percent of its 845,000 inhabitants are first- or second-generation immigrants. After reaching a low point in the 1980s, its population is now growing at its fastest rate ever. But while the city attracts thousands of newcomers, it drives almost as many away. Soaring housing prices, pushed even higher by housing shortages, real-estate speculators, and Airbnb, are expelling middle-income and working-class families from the city proper.