Tourist office touts 'art cities' to U.S. market

urope editor Kenneth Kiesnoski discussed travel trends in Belgium and a U.S. promotional push of "art cities" in the Flanders region with Frederique Raeymaekers, director of the Belgian Tourist Office in New York.

Travel Weekly:How is the U.S. market performing for Belgium, and how do your U.S. arrivals compare with the rest of Europe?

Raeymaekers: It's hard to say. Obviously, we have had a decline compared with last year, but I have no hard numbers to give you or any explanation that would hold water. I think we are performing, on average, on [a par] with the other European countries.

TW:Some in the industry speculate that European tourism boards have given up on the U.S. market and are concentrating on promotions closer to home. Does that describe Belgium's stance right now?

Raeymaekers: We're still trying to attract Americans; I would not let [the tourist board] abandon the market. And that's a temptation because the easier results can be had from Europe. But our real quality results have always come from the U.S. market. Per capita expenditures are much higher for Americans than for any other nationality.

Top art attractions in Antwerp, above, include the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, the Diamond Museum and - come this fall - the new ModeMuseum. And don't forget that Belgium gets a lot of U.S. business travel, meetings and conventions; that business is very easily converted into leisure travel through pre- and post-tours across the country.

These business travelers have discovered our Flemish "art cities." They see that they can visit a few of them in just one trip and have distinct experiences in each.

So we have a very specific U.S. market. I call it "business cum leisure." If you go to a big country like the U.S. for a convention and you're in a city like Denver, you probably are not going to go hop over to New York for a few days.

But if you're in Brussels, a half-hour on the train and you're in another city. We believe we'll be more successful in the future when more business travelers realize that.

TW:Your office is promoting several towns in the Flemish-speaking part of the country as "art cities," as you just mentioned. Can you paint a picture for our travel agent readers of just what makes these cities appealing?

Raeymaekers: Flanders reached the zenith of its power in the Middle Ages because it developed a wool-producing industry -- the Flemings became weavers to the Continent. This created an independent citizenry, as opposed to the rest of Europe, where you still had lords and serfs.

But the citizens of Ghent and Bruges had civil rights as early as the 13th century. They codified those rights in charters and they developed huge public buildings -- such as the belfries common to Flemish cities -- that stood as testimonies to their power.

These rich citizens also could order whatever art they wanted; they had portraits painted, ordered the finest lace, and had jewelry designed for their wives. So there's all this opulence that, in one way or the other, still exists in our cities, usually in museums.

TW:What's life like in Flemish cities today?

Raeymaekers: Even though they have similar backgrounds, these same cities now boast their own identities.

For example, Brussels is the capital of both Belgium and the European Union, and many would think that, as an administrative city, it must be dull and boring. But it's not; it has a preserved historic quarter.

And, thanks to the input of the other EU representatives, it's very cosmopolitan -- you have neighborhoods with Greek and Italian food.

Now Antwerp is the prototype of the very rich merchant cities of the past; it has for centuries been known as a harbor city whose merchants have extravagant taste and love to show their wealth.

I think, indirectly, that's why we have such an important fashion school there. It's also a young, trendy city. Many people come from Holland to spend the weekend because Antwerp has the best discos. They also have rock festivals; it's a very funky and youth-oriented city.

Ghent, as a university town famous for research in high technology and biochemistry, is a little more sedate than Antwerp. But it has a wealth of old buildings integrated into daily life. For example, warehouses dating to the Middle Ages now are being used as cafes.

Bruges really has not changed since the medieval period. It's a dream to walk through its streets. You should always stay overnight because during the day there are too many people, but if you stay later, you have Bruges to yourself.

TW:What about some of the lesser-known cities?

Raeymaekers: Michelin is a little city nobody really knows, but it's famous for workshops that restore 16th to 17th century tapestries and it's home to the most famous carillon school in the world. It's very nice when you sit on the square at a cafe -- the bells sound and the music sort of washes over you as you enjoy a beer.

Leuven is another university city, as important as Paris and Oxford since the 15th century.

TW:The peak season's now wrapping up. Is Belgium a viable winter destination, or should agents defer client trips until the spring?

Raeymaekers: The weather in the winter is never really great -- but it's never really cold, either. Provided you have a good umbrella and raincoat, you're OK.

Most of what you want to see is indoors, and even if you want to admire the squares, you can sit inside a cafe and watch with a cup of hot cocoa. And in the winter, we have Christmas markets and decorations and, very often, ice-skating rinks. It is not important which season you choose to visit Belgium.

TW:What are your predictions for arrivals in 2003?

Raeymaekers: It depends on what the airlines do. If air fares are affordable and we do our job of letting people know there are good land arrangements at reasonable prices, people will travel.

I believe there must be such accumulated frustration around [with people] not having traveled. It's up to us to make offers available and keep them simple, and then I foresee that people will visit.

Belgium is only six hours away from the East Coast -- that's a short trip. People who are too stressed or do not have enough time for a full vacation can be encouraged to take a short break in our Flemish art cities.

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