Tourists still welcome in Flemish cities, up to a point


A new survey shows that locals support tourism in their cities, but are wary about the impact on their quality of life

Open cities

Most residents of Flanders’ art cities are happy to welcome tourists, a survey has found, but they are increasingly sensitive about being crowded out. Some 27% of those responding said their quality of life had suffered because of tourism, up on the 19% who complained when the survey was carried out two years ago.

Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, Mechelen and Leuven, known collectively as the “art cities”, attract the most tourists. The survey was carried out by the five city tourist authorities, along with regional service Visit Flanders.

The 5,788 residents interviewed were largely supportive. Three-quarters said they were very positive about tourism in their cities, the same level as in 2017, and almost 70% thought the benefits of tourism outweighed the disadvantages.

A similar number even said that tourism had improved their cities, up on 63% last time. Only 6% said they did not support tourism, a level again unchanged since 2017.

Biggest changes in Ghent

“Despite the number of tourists increasing year after year, residents continue to support tourism in their city,” Stef Gits of Visit Flanders told VRT NWS. “That means that we are fortunately still very far from the situation experienced in Barcelona and Venice, where residents have turned against tourism.”

But the locals are not completely uncritical. One in six said they had been inconvenienced by tourism, up on one in eight in 2017. The main complaint was overcrowding, with residents of Bruges particularly susceptible.

“In Bruges, more than half of the people say that their quality of life is impacted by the bustle of tourism, while in smaller cities like Leuven and Mechelen, this impact is limited,” Vincent Nijs of Visit Flanders told VRT.

In Bruges, more than half of the people say that their quality of life is impacted by the bustle of tourism

- Vincent Nijs, Visit Flanders

But Ghent is where opinion is changing the most. Although 64% of the people questioned thought the benefits of tourism outweighed the disadvantages, 32% said that their quality of life was falling under pressure, and 16% indicated that tourism was disruptive. Both figures represent a significant increase on the 2017 study.

Forty percent of people in Ghent wanted to see fewer tour groups, compared to 23% in 2017, and 45% thought that living in Ghent is becoming more expensive due to the presence of platforms such as Airbnb. This was the highest score of all the cities surveyed.

A public consultation process about how Ghent should handle tourism in the future is currently under way. A meeting on 22 January will discuss the results of the survey, then on 19 February five priority themes will be worked out during workshops involving Ghent residents and people from the local tourism sector.

Photo courtesy Stad Gent/Flickr