The Major Flaws of domestic tourism in Belgium

Kalmthout Heath.

The COVID-19 pandemic really is a game changer in the way we live and in the way we travel. Last week, we summed up the excursions and getaways we did in Belgium, our home country, and in the Netherlands. Domestic travel was ‘a thing’ in 2020 and 2021 for obvious reasons. But on a mass level, it is very much flawed.

Firstly, let’s look at these obvious reasons. Why did we stay in Belgium, when we did? Because we did venture abroad. We went to Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia and Spain.

  • Because we had no choice. Sometimes formal travel restrictions kept us within the realm. Sometimes the reality of practicality. We could have tried to do something in France or Germany for Timothy‘s 40th birthday in June 2021, but ever-changing colour codes on the COVID map of Europe made that unpractical.
  • So it was also by choice. Even if in theory we could leave the Kingdom, the hassle of PCR tests, coronavirus countermeasures such as limiting visits to museums, restaurants or hotel facilities (swimming pools, spas…) made going abroad unpractical and unpleasant.
  • And to a lesser extend at some points social pressure. The ‘general mood’ altered quite a few times.

But unfortunately, Belgium is not made for domestic tourism on a mass level. Belgium does have nice spots to offer. A-list culture cities such as Bruges, Brussels, Ghent or Antwerp. B-list cities such as Liège, Durbuy or Hasselt. We have bed and breakfast accommodation in the nature. We have the Ardennes, Limburg and the 60 km of coast in West Flanders

But it can’t cope with Belgians staying in en masse in Belgium.

The Burgundy League at Orval.

Lacking infrastructure

While there are hotels, b&b’s and other types of accommodation, the ones one wanted were often fully booked. There were times the Ardennes were virtually full. 

In early June 2021, we looked for a nice place for four with a pool. It was a harder find than expected. In the end, we did find a nice wellness villa in Zottegem which was expensive but had a great pool. It was tailored for twelve guests so at four, we had plenty of room. 

But Sam, looking to book something nice for Danny‘s birthday, found out many hotspots were booked weeks and even months in advance. 

So yes, Belgian has horeca infrastructure, but not enough for a mass staycation. 

Vista of Bouillon.

Lacking imagination

There aren’t many ‘original’ destinations or ‘hidden jewels’. 

Now, stating that Belgium lacks original destinations is a double-edged sword. Having original, out of the box destinations requires them existing, but also requires us travellers to effectively think out of the box.

Travellers tend not to do that. Sunny and warm, let’s go to the coast. Chance of snow, let’s go to the High Fens. Belgians really lack imagination when it comes to travel and excursions. 

Maybe try something else? But that’s hard. One gets inspiration from somewhere. Usually other people, which mean your idea won’t be original or imaginative. 

And original, imaginative destinations require more research and more work to get to. So yes, people should be less lazy in finding spots off the beaten tracks, but there aren’t that many options. 

Lacking a welcome

Specifically because of COVID there was a will both from the public as from the authorities not to have big crowds. But as we ‘all’ went for a hike along the Ninglinspo near Aywaille, the Hallerbos (Hal Forrest) in Halle / Hal or the Kalmthout Heath for instance, authorities felt necessary to limit visitors and turn surplus visitors away.

But on the other hand, these same authorities were sometimes begging for visitors, for promotion for their attractions and for trains to their cities. The so-called coastal mayors, especially Bart Tommelein (Open Vld) of Ostend, had many mood swings regarding visitors. 

Ostend Railway Station.

Lacking infrastructure (part two)

Public transport is, even if like to complain about it), really not bad in Belgium. The train network is extensive, there are buses, trams and metros. 

That said, those remote, original, far from the madding crowd ‘hidden jewels’ are in reality often only accessible by car. And not everyone has a car. No everyone can ride a bike. 

Belgium is obsessed with cycling-based tourism, but cycling is far from an inclusive activity. 

So for us, without the help of Sam or Oriol or Tim or someone else with a car, we must make a cross on many of those nice destinations. Timothy has only a limited driving license and no car (he can’t rent one) and he can’t cycle. Danny has no driving license and really doesn’t like cycling. 

And we are not alone in this situation. 

Lacking dépaysement

Dépaysement‘ is a lovely French word. Literally ‘uncountrying’, it means a change of scenery. 

Travelling is about changing scenery for a shorter or longer while. See something else, eat and drink something else, do something else, speak another language. 

Travelling domestically takes that feeling out of the equation. 

So?

So, while many have (re)discovered their own neighbourhood, city, province, region and country, we did too. It was fun. But only for a while. There’s a point when we want to break out again. Go far and away. Go explore. 

Museums

Walks, hikes and daytrips

Oudenaarde City Hall.

Stays and gastronomy

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