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Armistice centenary: Remembrance tourism in Belgium is here to stay

22:17 07/11/2018

The centenary commemoration of the Great War, which comes to an end on Sunday, marked an important feat for the Flemish tourism sector. A key challenge for local tourism officials was to ensure that visitors from the other countries that also fought in the First World War saw their own histories reflected as well.

According to Flemish minister-president Geert Bourgeois, the consideration given to war casualties from other countries made the Flemish tourism campaign stand out. “Other countries primarily commemorated their own victims,” he says. “Flanders commemorated its own victims but also wanted to strongly express its gratitude towards the other nations that fought for our current freedom.”

War knows no borders

Characteristic for the Flemish First World War heritage is the density of war sites in a relatively limited surface area. More than 150 Commonwealth burial sites can be found around Ypres, West Flanders. The many national memorials in the Westhoek, which show that the victims hailed from various countries, also evidence that war knows no borders. The Last Post ceremony in Ypres, which has been held about 31,200 times, is unique and continues to draw local and international visitors.

While its First World War sites as such are not fundamentally different from those of other countries, Flanders wanted to set its own sites apart with excellent reception infrastructure at burial sites like the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Poperinge for instance. High-quality visitor centres provided information and assistance that helped tourists understand the significance of the sites.

The region's tourist board Tourism Flanders allocated €15 million to 40 infrastructure projects across Flanders to ensure appropriate accommodation for all the visitors, and invested €6 million in remembrance events.

Rising interest

The goal was to attract 500,000 annual visitors to the war heritage sites during the five-year campaign. Since the start of 2014, around 2.6 million tourists have visited at least one First World War site.

Figures for the period up to the end of 2017 show that the sites attracted 1.1 million local visitors and 1.2 million tourists who travelled to Flanders from abroad. Approximately 33% of the visitors hailed from the UK, while 10% travelled from the Netherlands. Tourists from Australia, New-Zealand, the US and Canada together made up for 5% of the total number of visitors.

The figures also demonstrate a clear rising interest in Flanders' war heritage. The number of First World War visitors for instance almost doubled in one year, from 415,000 visitors in 2013 to 789,000 in 2014.

The three most popular sites were the Tyne Cot Cemetery in Zonnebeke, the Menin Gate in Ypres, the site of the Last Post ceremony, and the In Flanders Fields Museum, also in Ypres.

A great majority of the visitors (93%) were very satisfied with their visit. They especially appreciated the serene atmosphere and how well the sites were maintained, as well as the ample amount of information given about the significance of every location.

The government, for its part, is already looking to the future. “Remembrance tourism will not stop existing and has also evolved throughout the years,” Bourgeois says. “In the past, it mostly consisted of ‘pilgrimages’ of relatives, while we now see many visitors who in the first place have a cultural-historical interest.”

A new tourism campaign will focus on the reconstruction period after the war and the idea of peace, he said. It should be finished by 2020. The aim of the campaign will also be to draw a connection to the present and on-going conflicts by illustrating the destructive force of war but also showcasing the resilience of the people affected by it.

Photo: the Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial in Waregem, West Flanders (© Visit Flanders)

Written by Andy Furniere (Flanders Today)