Kim Beuten is the assistant to the General Director of FlorealGroup. Floreal owns holiday resorts, camping grounds and meeting centres in Flanders, Wallonia and is currently developing holiday packages in France.
When every guest, from Nieuwpoort to Malmedy, feels at ease. When no one needs to look around them, wondering anxiously whether they fit in. When guests can let go, relax and go their own way. And when solidarity and respect grows among people from different backgrounds. That’s when it happens, says Kim Beuten of FlorealGroup. “That’s what lies at the heart of social tourism, I think. Diversity, joviality, freedom, openness and the space for everyone to just be themselves”.
Kim: “I was recently on the bus. A somewhat elderly man was sitting across from me. He started shifting back and forth and I could see something wasn’t right. “May I speak to you for a few minutes?”, he asked. He told me his wife had passed and that this was the first time he had left the house since then. He expressed guilt because he kept on living, while his wife couldn’t any longer. Also he felt relieved to be able to tell this to someone. That really moved me”.
What touched you so much in this experience, Kim?
“At times like that, I remember in one go that many people are in similar situations as that kind man on the bus. And then I think that our job, organising social tourism, helps people escape for a while, sometimes take their first cautious steps towards a holiday experience and get to meet people who give them a boost. That’s one thing you do get from a vacation, I think: some breathing space, putting your problems on hold for a while, get a chance to have a chat with other people, blow off some steam and find new energy.
“People need a connection with others. And we, as holiday operators, get a chance to enable that.” – Kim Beuten
“That’s exactly what moves me so much: people need a connection with others. And we, as holiday operators, get a chance to enable that. In total diversity. We have people attending seminars meet small children cycling through the hallways. People with a disability enjoying their holidays next to others. With us, low-income families get the same chance to go on holiday as those who don’t need to be so careful with their finances. We try to bring people together, to tear down the walls of ignorance, to make people realise that it really is ok for others to be different than themselves. That’s probably what is so beautiful about social tourism, I think”.
Can social tourism act as a vector for cohesion in our society?
“I think so, yes. I think we can bring people in touch and I hope that some of those contacts will endure. Come to think of it, we could even go one step further, for instance by working together with the welfare organisms, inviting their holidaymakers back for a get-together. A chance to look at some pictures, have a pancake, and above to make sure people get to meet again, which builds social bonds. Rebuilding cohesion through the detour of holidays: it might sound utopic…”
Well, the biggest social innovations stem from utopic ideas, don’t they? Have you got any other ideas on your mind?
“I think about senior citizens who have a second residence on the seaside. Many of them sort of stranded there, hardly in touch with their environment and barely know anyone around. Maybe we can do something for them too. Get them out of their little apartment, invite them for a game of cards and then help them find their way to local associations.
Interesting idea. You mean that as a provider of accommodation you have a role to play in the local community?
“I do indeed. And I’m very happy about initiatives such as ‘Vakantieschakel’. Maybe that platform will allow us to look for local inhabitants who can have a meaningful interaction with our holidaymakers. Go on a bout of Nordic Walking, for example, enjoying the authentic local scenery with the help of people who know all the little streets. I believe social tourism really does go beyond providing accommodation and breakfast. We can really stimulate encounters on many levels”.
What is the essence of social tourism according to you, then, Kim?
“We’ve been talking a lot about the exact definition of social tourism. Our field of work evolves a lot and it is quite difficult to grasp, because what do we do that is different from regular tourism providers? Fundamentally, I think it is about openness, joviality, dignity and personal relations with people. Creating a connection. Yes, that is the essence: enabling connections."