Until the events of a few weeks ago, the picturesque country of Belgium was known more for waffles and chocolate than for being a hotbed of terrorism. But the much-publicized Feb. 15 counter-terrorism raid in Verviers near the German border, along with subsequent arrests, changed all that.
Unlike France, Belgium dodged this particular bullet and the suspected terrorists were prevented from carrying out an attack, but the country’s leaders are understandably on edge.
That said, television images of heavily armed soldiers roaming the streets of Brussels and Antwerp offer a distorted view of current life in Belgium, said Hendrik Van de Velde, spokesman for Belgium's ministry of foreign affairs
“What needs to be said is that normal life goes on,” Van de Velde said in a phone interview. Yes, increased security is present in the form of soldiers guarding potential targets throughout the country, including embassies and Jewish sites, but “there is nothing that changes daily life and there is no lack of freedom of movement,” he said.
In fact, according to Van de Velde, locals are more likely to be startled by the increased security than international visitors.
“In general terms, although this is a personal reflection, even today’s level of presence of security forces in the street is less than you might see in big cities in the U.S.”
It is too soon to gauge the effect on tourism of the raids and the equally unsettling specter of potential sleeper cells in the country, and the Belgium and Flanders tourist offices are referring such inquiries to the embassy. And it should be noted that Paris has not seen a significant drop in tourism, according to its tourism board, Atout France.
However, Van de Velde was unequivocal in his desire to deflate the level of panic on the part of would-be visitors.
“Yes, there is enhanced awareness, and authorities are asking citizens to observe common sense and exert more vigilance,” he said, “but we are an informed country, and we simply ask people to listen to the local authorities to remain safe.”
Obviously, whether or not to visit a destination should be a personal and informed decision. But it might help to keep in mind that while much of Europe remains on alert after the Paris attacks, so do a number of other destinations worldwide.
Australia is on high alert in response to the terrorist event in Sydney on Dec. 15, and Boston, New York and Washington, which were already on heightened alert after the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013, have ramped up security even more in recent weeks.
In short, if this is the new normal worldwide, Van de Velde is simply asking that visitors put their fears in perspective.
“Americans are always welcome,” he said. “Please come.”