Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Terror attacks have led to a drop-off in the Belgian capital’s visitor numbers. But that isn’t the only issue.
On a sunny day or under a fresh layer of snow, the historic Grand Place in Brussels is so photogenic that it can look like a fanciful film backdrop. With every surface of its gabled 17th century guild houses smothered in ornamental pilasters, statuary and gold leaf, it comes across like a tightly packed storehouse in which architectural embellishments have been stowed until needed elsewhere.
But while the UNESCO World Heritage Site has at times been voted the most beautiful square in the world, it—and Brussels as a whole—is going through hard times right now. At a time when many European cities are struggling to manage an overflow of tourists, Brussels has gone the other way. This year, visitor numbers have plummeted.
According to the latest figures, Brussels hotel occupancy is at just 62 percent, a drop of 18 percent for the month of July compared to last year. Bar and restaurant takings are down between 25 and 30 percent. Even visits to the city’s most popular attraction, the iron crystal Atomium built for the 1958 World’s Fair, has seen visits fall by 40 percent.
The main reason for the fall is clear enough: people are afraid of terrorism. After the men behind the Paris attacks of last November were traced back to the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, a huge manhunt ensued that left the city under lockdown for four days. Long-standing fears of an imminent attack were then confirmed in March, when bomb attacks at the city’s airport and the Maalbeek Metro Station killed 35, including three perpetrators.
The experience of Brussels over the past 12 months sadly isn’t unique. Terror attacks have also hit popular tourist destinations such as Paris, Orlando, Istanbul, Nice, Hurghada, and Munich. It’s hard to see how any city could through something like this and see its popularity with visitors left unscathed.
Still, there may be yet other factors contributing to the tourism downturn in Brussels. The city’s hospitality industry is overwhelmingly centered on the knot of streets around the Grand Place, to the extent that tourists have largely taken over this part of town, and locals tend to stay away. The result is that Brussels residents are by and large not interested in spending time around the square to make up the current shortfall. According to local media reports, the area is lately dead during the mornings and after nightfall. As one local waitress told the newspaper La Libre:
"The Grand Place represents Belgium, but the [people of the] city have abandoned the UNESCO perimeter – it's a stampede! There are bums, people sit in the middle of the square drinking alcohol while listening to music. And from 9 pm onwards, there's nobody around.”
The idea of people drinking and listening to music doesn’t exactly sound like the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but it’s true that apart from during key events such as the biennial mid-August flower carpet, some of the area’s vitality had already gone before the events of the past year.
None of this means that it’s a case of lights-out all over Brussels. Head west down the road to the streets around Place Sainte-Catherine or south to neighborhoods such as Saint-Gilles and you’ll still find streets buzzing by night with locals, in what remains one of Europe’s quirkier, more underrated cities.
Elsewhere in and around Brussels, visitor attractions are fighting back with a basic but sensible plan of price cuts and promotions aimed primarily not at international visitors but Belgians. In the meantime, the current state of the Grand Place and its environs is beginning to look like a cautionary tale to any city with areas where catering to tourists overrules the needs of locals. When tourism is allowed to dominate and then suddenly disappears, you run the risk of ending up with a gorgeous but relatively empty shell.