WW I centenary brings 'battlefield business' boom to Belgium

11/10/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/09/2015 05:59 EST
For years, Carine Leclercq and her husband had one goal in mind: open their own hotel. The plan was always to wait until their later years, after their children left home and life’s other demands began to dwindle.

But that changed dramatically as 2014 and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War approached. The Leclercqs realized it was the perfect time to realize their lifelong ambition.

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The couple secured a $1.1-million investment and used it to open the Main Street Hotel just outside of Ypres in West Flanders, the area where some of the war’s bloodiest battles were fought. 

“Because of the centenary, we thought we would give it a go,” said Carine. “All of a sudden we realized Ypres would be attracting a lot of tourists so it seemed like the perfect time.

“We made the right decision.”                                                          

'We need to remember what happened'

Flemish tourism officials initially estimated that 500, 000 people would visit western Belgium during 2014. But the area has already seen more than 578,000 visitors to date, causing officials to raise their estimate to a total of 750,000 before year’s end. 

That number is more than double the amount of people on average who visited during pre-centenary years. 

And not only have this year’s figures surpassed expectations, but the tide of tourists is set to continue until November 2018, the centenary of the war’s end. 

In the four-year build up to that date, more than two million people are expected to descend on Flanders; an estimate that will likely rise if 2014 is any indication.

“The First World War is part of daily life here,” said Peter Slosse, director of tourism in Ypres. “But this year, more so than usual, everybody is realizing how important it is because we have so many people that have come from all around the world to experience the history here for themselves.”

Many of those visitors will come from Canada, such as a group of 25 high school students from Iqaluit who will take part in an official wreath-laying ceremony in Ypres on Remembrance Day after visiting the area’s battlefields. 

“We need to remember what happened because it’s been so long and if places aren’t visited and talked about they can be forgotten,” said Tuqqaasi Nuqingaq, a 17-year-old student on the trip. “I think it’s really important to be going there this year." 

Preparing for the surge

The surge in visitors has triggered a spree of development in the regions’ tourism industry. 

One of the areas most well-known destinations for WWI tourists, the In Flanders Fields Museum, named after Canadian soldier John McCrae’s seminal poem, has expanded in size by 50 per cent. High-tech multimedia exhibits were also added in anticipation of the centenary. 

At Tyne Cot cemetery, the most visited war graves site in Flanders, a new interactive panel was installed last week to help tourists learn the stories of the WWI soldiers buried there. 

Peter Francis, spokesman for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said the number of visitors to Tyne Cot, where nearly 12, 000 soldiers are buried, is up 64 per cent compared to last year. 

The area’s hospitality businesses have also expanded. Like the Leclercqs, other hoteliers saw the centenary as an opportunity to grow their businesses with several of them adding extra rooms to their facilities. 

Figures from Westtoer, the region’s tourism authority, show that there has been an 8 per cent increase in monthly hotel bookings on average this year. More specifically, in August and September, area hotels were almost completely sold out. 

It’s a similar story for battlefield tour companies, according to Steve Douglas, a Canadian who runs Salient Tours. 

“We’ve seen a huge increase in business, definitely,” said Douglas, whose great uncle died fighting in WWI near Ypres. 

‘This is not the Olympics’

But while these figures make the WWI centenary seem like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Flanders tourism industry, officials say they’re hesitant to stimulate “too much” development. 

“This is not the Olympics where you build a completely new village and then you can use it for something else afterwards,” said Slosse. 

“Obviously we believe remembrance tourism will continue after the centenary, just as it has in the past, but to have the number of accommodations and other activities here go up in the same way as visitor numbers during this four-year period would not be wise.” 

Instead, officials are advising businesses to be cautious and consider the long-run with tourist visits expected to drop down to their normal level of 350, 000 annually after 2018. 

More than ‘battlefield business’  

The other concern among some Flanders residents is achieving the right balance between appropriately commemorating this poignant anniversary and creating an environment where people can simply cash in. 

To try to prevent this, the area has a charter outlining principles for war-related tourism, ensuring respectful remembrance of the carnage that unfolded in the area during WWI while also limiting commercialization of battlefield symbols. 

“The fact is that you cannot avoid souvenirs being made with poppies, for example,” Slosse said. “But we try to stop too much of that from happening because our main priority is that people never forget what the important subject is when they come to Ypres.” 

It’s a goal that those who’ve made business decisions based on the centenary, like Carine Leclercq, share. 

She said the most rewarding part of owning a hotel in Flanders is listening to the stories of visitors tracing their family histories back to soldiers who fought in the area. 

“If you want to call what we’re doing a battlefield business, OK, It’s a battlefield business,” said Leclercq. “But I hope the people who come here will realize it’s so much more than that to us.”