“It’s the economy, stupid!”. This campaign one-liner from 1992, from the former American president Clinton, has dominated the past few decades. In times of economic turbulence, when there is pressure on labour markets and everyone’s household budgets, the importance of the economy and ‘growth, growth, growth’ as an abiding principle continues to prevail.

Peter De Wilde

For the sake of clarity: there is nothing wrong with growth per se. But … it is possible to have too much of a good thing if the associated costs are not mitigated. The consequences are well-known and, in some places, painfully clear. Amsterdam, Venice, Dubrovnik, Barcelona … In the recent past, every holiday period has seen newspaper pages filled with worrying articles in which residents curse the unwanted flow of visitors.

In Flanders, thankfully, we’re not there yet. Here, we can still accommodate healthy growth. And in all honesty, the hard work that all of those within the broad tourism sector have put in over the past few years has paid off. The commemorative period for the Great War was, according to our benchmarks, a genuine success and the Flemish Masters programme is well on the way to doing even better. Flanders, the cities, regions and local authorities continue to invest in the public space that has benefited local residents and entrepreneurs as well as visitors. Year after year, we see more arrivals, more receipts and greater turnover.

According to the accepted success criteria, the tourism policy in Flanders is very successful. Even if we have not (yet) managed to reach out and provide all people living in poverty with the basic right to enjoy a holiday. However, we have been asking ourselves a few fundamental questions recently: how do we ensure there is a healthy balance between the interests of residents and visitors? How can we honour and maintain the natural richness and historical authenticity of our destinations? How can we read the signs of the times in order to ensure that our beloved Flanders remains a pleasant place to live, do business in, and visit? How can tourism ensure that our local communities in all of those wonderful places continue to thrive in such a way that genuine hospitality goes without saying?

It is precisely this love for our little place in the world that drives us, with great curiosity and an open mind, to set out with you on a quest to find the answers to all of these questions. Because yes, I must confess, the government doesn’t have all the answers.

That is why we focussed on listening. In a very broad listening exercise, we probed into the added value of travelling and holidays; what made such an impression during your holiday that you were, quite literally, transformed? What changed your view of something, altered your opinions, or your behaviour? For example, alongside measuring visitor numbers to Flanders Fields, what they did and how much they spent, we considered it worthwhile to find out what made such an impression that they genuinely felt a sense of added value. This could be an encounter with a local resident, a service provider or organisation; an experience that made a lasting impression, whether as an individual or in a group at a specific place. In turn, this can add significance to the destination itself, and allow residents to see their environment in a new way, through the eyes of the visitor. And to (re)discover why they are so proud of the place they love, which they call home.

What would happen if we could strengthen this positive power of tourism? So that visitors would feel like a welcome part of the local community and go home feeling appreciated, with a desire to return? So that residents enjoy providing hospitality and become proud ambassadors of their community across the globe? From Adinkerke to Zoutleeuw, there are residents who share a common love and passion for the place where they live. Tapping into this positive energy will help ensure that travelling to Flanders in the future is also an enriching experience.

In ‘Tourism Transforms’, we set to work across the whole of Flanders with our partners. The (provisional) result of this exceptional and co-creative process is this magazine. We hope that you are inspired and that it can support you in your efforts with your ‘place keepers’. Whatever the case, it is an ongoing invitation to work together and to build on the tourism policy of the future.

Peter De Wilde, VisitFlanders

PS: Credit where credit is due: even though the current policy is a success, according to the success criteria that are presently applied, and acknowledging that we have still to determine how we will measure success in a ‘new model’, our minister is nevertheless giving us the freedom to explore new horizons. Many tourism professionals and passionate entrepreneurs have taken the time to accept our invitation to collectively ‘not know’ and then to start work on this basis. They are courageous choices, but they are the only right ones. We are genuinely thankful to all.