Felicity Long
Felicity Long

When it comes to rebounding after a terrorist incident, some European destinations have had it tougher than others.

Take Brussels, for example, which was caught in the glare of the international spotlight a few years ago because of a series of terrorism events that rattled nerves across the Continent.

To say that tourism suffered as a result is putting it mildly. Visitors from the U.S. plummeted in 2016, and the city's premature efforts to reassure potential tourists via a #CallBrussels campaign fizzled after three suicide bombings took place at the airport and on the Metro just several months after the launch of the campaign.

But while other destinations with even more recent incidents, like Paris and Barcelona, are in full upswing mode, Brussels has taken longer to stage its comeback as an international leisure destination.

One issue is that Brussels has traditionally -- and undeservedly, in my opinion -- suffered from a bit of an image problem. Despite its beautifully historical city center, its world-class museums and its family-friendly attractions, the destination often plays second fiddle to some of its glamorous neighbors, like Paris and Amsterdam.

Add to that the unfair portrayal in the media of Brussels as a hotbed of ISIS sleeper cells, and you have a portrait of a destination in danger of being overlooked.

The good news is that the picture is beginning to turn around, according to Simon Detemmerman, market intelligence manager at Visit Brussels.

In fact, by last year, Brussels saw a jump of 28% U.S. visitors over 2016, around half of whom were visiting for leisure.

Overall, the U.S. market is Brussels' sixth-largest market in terms of tourism and represents 6% of overnight stays in the city.

The other good news is that in 2017 the city was ranked 17th in the Economist Intelligent Unit's Safe Cities Index  world ranking, ahead of some other European capitals, including London, Paris and Rome.

Meanwhile, the numbers for this spring are even more encouraging, according to Detemmerman, who said the average length of stay for visitors in Brussels has increased by 13% in the first couple of months of 2018.

"The increase is even more significant for American tourists, at more than 18%," he said, adding that hotel occupancy and average daily rates in 2018 have been consistently higher than last year for every month so far.

"Summer should follow the same trends, with many major events that will attract new visitors in the capital," he said.

Detemmerman cited the Ommegang of Brussels, a medieval pageant that takes place in July; Flower Carpet, a biennial event in August during which the Grand-Place becomes a giant carpet of flowers, and the self-explanatory Comic Strips Festival and Belgian Beer Weekend, both in September.

To further get the word out, a delegation from Brussels visited New York and Washington May 21 to 24 as part of a Brussels Days campaign,  comprising seminars and networking events with American tourism professionals.

In addition to tourism, this year's Brussels Days themes were the Brussels hip hop scene; gastronomy; new technologies and creative industries, specifically fashion and design, and ecoconstruction.

Although it's too soon to predict the impact the May 29 terrorist attack in Liege , Belgium, will have on tourism recovery in the region, it's fair to say that these incidents have become the depressing new normal, not just in Belgium but throughout much of Europe. 

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