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
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.
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
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
TW:What's life like in Flemish cities
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
And, thanks to the input of the other EU representatives, it's
very cosmopolitan -- you have neighborhoods with Greek and Italian
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
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
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
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
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
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.