Flanders prepares for a World War I army — of tourists

The World
WWI memorial crosses

Almost every evening in the Flemish town of Ypres, come rain or shine, a group of buglers emerge beneath the Menin Gate monument to the fallen soldiers of World War I and play the "Last Post." It's been happening since 1928.

"Quite often you'll choke up and cry when you hear the bugles," says New Zealander Maria Sainsbury, who traveled from half a world away to visit World War I sites in Belgium and Northern France.

One hundred years ago, West Flanders was one of the most militarized zones on Earth, part of the infamous Western Front, the great trench system that divided Western Europe. Now, with the centenary of the war commencing and lasting for the next four years, the region is readying itself to reap the benefits of a projected army of tourists.

During the remembrance, Belgium expects the number of tourists to their World War I sites will grow by 50 percent. That's a total of 2 million tourists: a major business opportunity.

"Of course with the centenary, we expect more people," said Lea Winkeler, World War I project manager at the government agency Visit Flanders. The Flemish government has poured some $50 million into preparations that include expanding museums, increasing parking capacity, exhibitions and an international public relations blitz.

"The commemoration is an event that links our very small region in Flanders to the rest of the world, because there are 50 countries which had people fighting and dying here," Winkeler said.

Beyond the public sector, private businesses, like tour guides, are scrambling to make the most of the impending opportunity.

"We brought 550 people on tours this past year," said Jean Wyns, who runs Brussels City Tours. "But in the coming years, I'd like to at least double that. Maybe we can get as many as 1,500 per year."

In time for the imminent spike in tourists, Wyns has created a special tour of World War I sites, which will leave from Brussels twice a week. The tour stops at cemeteries for soldiers fighting for both sides, monuments erected by various countries after the war, and the remains of trenches, bunkers and field hospitals.

In the hotel sector, major expansions are happening across Flanders. The Albion Hotel in Ypres, for example, is now in the process of increasing its capacity from 23 to 32 rooms, adding 28 parking spaces and a conference room. Already, the hotel's reservations book is filling up.

"For April, May, July and September, we have a lot of periods which are fully booked," said hotel owner Christiane Decramer-Praet. "Normally we don't. It's a very good start."

While this "good start" of entrepreneurship and investment is welcomed and promising, the regional Flemish government and the Federal Belgian government in Brussels are vigilant that the commemoration business remains appropriate.

"For us, it's very important to communicate in a very respectful manner," said Steven Lodeywyck of Westoer, the tourist authority in the West Flanders region.

The market is awash with tacky trinkets and other forms of commemoration that flirt with the limits of good taste. Westoer is running workshops with private businesses to try and steer them toward a respectful way of commemorating.

"We told them about the history of World War I," Lodeywyck said. "We told them about what's going to happen in the next four to five years, and we instructed them how to establish a serene communication."

One successful example of "serene communication," and a positive model of commercialized commemoration, they say, is Paschendaele Beer. It's a new beer developed to commemorate the Battle of Paschendaele of 1917, which saw almost half a million causalities.

The beer was developed by the Van Honsebrouk Brewery in the West Flanders town of Inglemunster. It was first brewed in Belgium last year and will be exported, especially to Commonwealth countries, soon. While the brewery faced the usual challenge of getting the right balance of ingredients to make a tasty beer, in this case it also had to work on the balance of commerce and commemoration.

"It's a commercial product, but we also, together with that beer, want to bring it to the people to commemorate the big war," said marketing manager Jean-Christophe Feys. "It's a thin line to walk."

From 2014 to 2018, Flanders will have to walk that thin line between commemoration of a dark period in its history and making the most of an unprecedented tourist boom. All that remains is for the tourists to show up.

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