Flemish Brabant measures sharp increase in ‘tourism’ due to virus


Walkers and cyclists are taking to countryside roads in Flemish Brabant in droves during the corona crisis, with triple the usual numbers and more

No bluebell visitors this year

The number of local “tourists” in Flemish Brabant has shot up thanks to the coronavirus, according to figures released by Toerisme Vlaams-Brabant. The tourist board concludes that local people are responding to virus restrictions by getting out and discovering their surroundings.

Belgians have been encouraged to go outside and take exercise during the corona virus outbreak, as long as they respect guidelines on social distancing. A spell of good weather has fully prompted them to take that advice.

“We are happy that, in the current circumstances, people are still allowed to discover their own region and also have the time to do so,” said Monique Swinnen, in charge of tourism on the provincial council. “And Flemish Brabant is the walking province par excellence.”

The bluebell period makes compliance with social distancing measures very difficult, if not impossible

- Minister Zuhal Demir

The figures come from a series of automatic counters that Toerisme Vlaams-Brabant has installed in key spots to monitor the number of visitors. Almost all have seen an increase in traffic over the past 10 days, compared to the same period in 2019.

Tielt-Winge, in the east of the province, has seen the most dramatic increase in walkers. A counter behind the Gempe watermill showed 131% more visitors, while walkers registered by the counter at the Vlooyberg tower tourist attraction (pictured above) shot up by 253%.

The Chartreuzen forest in Lubbeek saw a 90% increase in walkers, while a rise of 189% was registered in the Hallerbos, the woods just to the southwest of Brussels famous for the carpet of bluebells that bloom every spring. Numbers were also up in the Oud-Heverlee play forest, where visitors rose by 164%.

Similar increases have been seen for cycling, with a counter in the Sonian Forest in Hoeilaart jumping from 1,899 cyclists in March 2019 to 5,414 cyclists in March 2020, an increase of 185%.

Meanwhile the government of Flanders has decided to cancel the Bluebell Festival that brings thousands of tourists to the Hallerbos and other Flemish woods every spring.

“From mid-April to early May these forests are buzzing with activity,” said environment minister Zuhal Demir. “This makes compliance with social distancing measures very difficult, if not impossible. In these exceptional times, it is simply irresponsible to let the Bluebell Festival continue as normal.”

The flowers will still bloom, of course, but visitors are asked to stay away. People attempting to visit any of the woods, including the Hallerbos, by car will be turned back by the police.

“According to the applicable rules, only people from the neighbourhood are allowed into the woods, on foot or by bicycle,” said Marc Snoeck, mayor of Halle. “We deeply regret having to make this decision, but we ask for everyone’s understanding.”

Photos, from top: ©Provincie Vlaams-Brabant, ©P Clémént/VisitFlanders