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Beside the seaside: The continuing popularity of Belgian coastal tourism
It may be just 67km long, but the Belgian coastline is home to more than 20 individual resorts. To outsiders, those seaside resorts are mostly made up of chaotic and ugly concrete buildings. Yet despite the unattractive architecture and apparent lack of nature, millions of people visit each year.
So when did it all start? For a long time, the idea of bathing in sea waters and spending ‘the season’ at the coast was an exclusive privilege. Leisure time was an invention for those who didn’t have to work. Back in the 16th century, citizens from nearby cities like Bruges were already taking the waters at the coast, but coastal tourism in Belgium really took off under the influence of the British. During the American War of Independence only a few harbours on the continent, like Nieuwpoort and Ostend, remained open for trade with England, so British merchants decided to settle there. They brought their bathing habits with them.
But nothing and nobody was as influential on coastal tourism as the Belgian royal family. From 1834, the royals spent their holidays in Ostend, and this glamour soon attracted the European elites. From the 1850s, luxury hotels were built boasting all the comforts the upper classes needed during the season: electricity, running water and the best entertainment you could find. French, German and British nobles and industrials, even the Shah of Persia: they were all drawn to the cosmopolitan character of what became known as the Queen of Resorts.
Leopold II, best known for his role in the atrocities committed in Congo, is also known as the Builder King for his ambitious architectural plans in Ostend. In 1878, the modern Kursaal casino opened, followed five years later by Wellington’s Hippodrome.
Two developments completely changed coastal tourism’s elitist character: the growth of the railways and the arrival of the welfare state. As far back as 1838, a railway connection opened between Brussels and Ostend, followed by a connection to Blankenberge in 1863 and the opening of the first stretch of the coastal tram in 1886.
In just a few decades, the Belgian coast was well connected with inland areas, and it meant that it was no longer just the highest noble and bourgeois elites who could go bathing but also the emerging middle class. By the beginning of the 20th century they were joined by factory workers. In 1905, a law forbade working on Sunday, giving the lower classes a day off to develop their own leisure activities, which often meant booking a cheap train ticket to the coast. In 1936, every Belgian worker gained the right to six days’ paid leave. From that time onwards, mass tourism came into being.
But the resorts’ grandeur wouldn’t survive the two world wars, and much of today’s architectural ugliness is due to the devastation of wartime bombings. The pier in Blankenberge was rebuilt after World War One, the casino in Ostend after World War Two. When rebuilding began, mass tourism confronted developers with high demand for cheaper lodgings at the coast: it required large concrete buildings that would give everyone a chance of a room with a view.
Today the resorts each attract a specific sort of person, and almost every Belgian has a favourite. Blankenberge is mostly associated with kitsch tourism (gaming arcades and wet T-shirt competitions); De Haan, the garden city, has its cottage-style buildings; Bredene has the best campsites and its own nudist beach; Koksijde is great for families and De Panne is excellent for beach sailing.
Knokke, especially Het Zoute, can best be understood by the words of its mayor, Leopold Lippens (mayor since 1976), who said that “coolbox tourists” were not welcome. Lippens thought these ‘vulgar people’ lowered the standards of his resort. Unless you drive a Ferrari or wear Prada, you might be better off staying away from Albertplein, or as it’s better known, Place m’as tu vu? (Did You See Me Square).
Mirella Marini, Belgian Academy of Culture and History